Art Ensemble Of Chicago

ONE OF THE most enduring avant-garde jazz organizations, the Art Ensemble grew out of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, founded in Chicago in 1965 by pianist and clarinettist Muhal Richard Abrams.

Other members included Anthony Braxton and trumpeter Leo Smith. Ornette Coleman was an early influence on the AACM’s collective improvisation, and several albums were cut for local blues label Delmark, including the ensemble piece Little Suite (Sound), a free-form “history” of jazz and black music.

The Art Ensemble was formed in 1968 by trumpeter Bowie, who had toured with soul singers like Jerry Butler and Joe Tex, saxophonists Mitchell and Jarman and bass-player Favors. From 1969 to 1972 the group was based in France, where it was joined by drummer Don Moye. Bowie’s wife (soul singer Fontella Bass – her ‘Rescue Me’ reached No. 4 on Checker in 1965) was featured on several recordings, notably the film soundtrack Les Stances à Sophie (EMI Pathe, 1970).

The band’s live performances became progressively more theatrical in the style of African ceremonies while at the same time their music became increasingly Africanized in the course of the ’70s. Wild vocal screams and African instruments (log-drums, whistles and gongs) were regularly featured in their performances. A triumphal return to the United States for the Ann Arbor Festival led to two albums for Atlantic, including Fanfare for the Warriors, for which Abrams joined the Ensemble. Urban Bushmen (ECM, 1982), a live recording of a 1980 concert, catches the band at its best during this period.

Mitchell, Bowie and Jarman all cut a number of solo albums, while The Third Decade (ECM, 1985) celebrated the group’s twenty-year history with a range of material drawing on Irish melodies, tongue-in-cheek funk, American drumming and jazz balladry. Joe and Byron Bowie, Lester’s trombone- and sax-playing brothers, were members of an equally avant-garde jazz-disco group, Defunkt, formed in 1980.

During the 90s the group and its members recorded on a part-time basis. The Ensemble released Soweto (DIW, 1991) and Dreaming of the Master Suite (1992), while Bowie recorded Unforeseen Blessings (Black Saint, 1990) with the Leaders, which included a witty version of ‘Blueberry Hill’. Defunkt found an international audience in the dance clubs with Heroes (DIW, 1990).

© Phil Hardy, Dave LaingFaber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, 2001

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