“OUR MUSIC IS primarily intended to stimulate thought, to get people to make new rationales,” said Art Ensemble of Chicago trumpeter Lester Bowie. “We’re expanding our production and really trying to reach everyone and give people an understanding of what we’re about.
“The music is a composite of all different types of music. We come from jazz and blues and everything–even hip hop–but we’re about establishing sort of a new reality on that, relating to these forms in a different way.”
The veteran quintet–Bowie, Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell (reeds), Malachi Favors Maghostut (bass) and Famoudou Don Moye (drums)–will be making their first Los Angeles appearance in several years at UCLA’s Wadsworth Theater Saturday. But the relatively low profile the group has maintained during the last half of the ’80s doesn’t mean it’s been inactive.
Since November, the Art Ensemble has been recording a 7-record project for Japan’s DIW label–including two with the South African a capella vocal group Amabutho, a homage to Thelonious Monk with pianist Cecil Taylor, a tribute to John Coltrane, and a live album of the Art Ensemble combined with Brass Fantasy to be recorded in Japan.
The group were actually in the process of rushing off to a studio to record Brass Fantasy during the phone interview from their Brooklyn headquarters. That’s their home base for ongoing side projects, business affairs and special projects–like the West Coast swing of concerts with Women of the Calabash, a vocal/percussion trio who will perform their own set and jointly with the Art Ensemble Saturday.
“The link is whatever we decide to do in the context of what we’re trying to do in this period–which is an expansion situation,” said drummer Famadou Don Moye. “We’re building towards the Great Black Music Orchestra, which would encompass all of the bands (associated with us)–the Leaders, Art Ensemble, Brass Fantasy, Joe Bowie, etc. Calabash fit in with our scheme of trying to present a larger production.”
The group came together as an outgrowth of the creative ferment spawned by Chicago’s Assocation for the Advancement of Creative Musicians organization during the mid-’60s. Initially a quartet, the Art Ensemble moved to Paris in 1969, absorbed the Detroit-bred Moye the following year, and quickly developed an international reputation as bellwethers of the avant-garde jazz scene.
BUT THE ART Ensemble weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms on their return to the U.S. in the mid-’70s. Favors, Jarman and Moye’s decision to perform in face paint and robes led many to dismiss them as purveyors of hate music or reliant on visual gimmickry to mask musical shortcomings.
“People have to recognize the fact that we are basically an African people,” said bassist Favors. “Even though we have lost a lot our traditions as African people, we still have a connection spiritually with that.
“The first time I saw face paint on an African-American was Charlie Parker. He went to a ball back in the ’50s and he had on African dress and had face paint. It was a photo in Jet magazine and that was one of the first things that inspired me.”
But jazz was never the sum thrust of their approach–the group has performed under the banner of “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future” throughout their career. They were one of the first groups to consciously weave in an enormous variety of outside influences into their music.
“The Eastern and African influences were always there,” said Bowie. “We’ve lived in the Caribbean and in Africa and all these places and we’ve incorporated all sorts of music into what they call world music now. We’re creating a music that people of the world can relate to–jazz served as a link to all these different forms because jazz gives a foundation that develops your ears.”
But the Art Ensemble is much more of a true collective than a band per se. Bowie and Jarman are based in New York, Favors and Moye operate from Chicago, and Mitchell calls Madison, Wisconsin home. All are involved in various side projects–from Jarman’s involvement in theater and performance projects, to Bowie’s Brass Fantasy group, Mitchell’s Sight and Sound Ensemble and Moye’s involvement with The Leaders and Favors with the Ritual Trio of drummer Kahil El Zabar. And all those diverse influences are reflected in the music.
“We get out of trying to predetermine what happens where you say we’re going to do this and you take a solo here,” explained Bowie. “We just let it grow–it’s an organic music and if someone is particularly on that day, things just gravitate towards them. If someone isn’t, it gravitates away. You can’t control that–if you try to force it, it gets even worse.”
But the Art Ensemble’s lower profile doesn’t translate into activity even though the jazz climate for progressive, experimentally-inclined jazz is particularly stormy here. Most of the group’s recordings from 1975-85 were released by ECM, the German label which enjoyed major label distribution for a time; their current output has been released by Japan’s DIW, which translates to lower visibility and higher prices for consumers. Not that that set of circumstances is going to dissuade the Art Ensemble from the path they’ve chosen.
“We are the eternal optimists,” declared Moye. “If we encounter resistance in a certain area, we just pull back. In the context of 20-25 years of activity, a blank in a certain zone over a couple years doesn’t mean that much. We structured our whole (organization), conceptually, to be able to pick and choose in an area where there’s true interest.”
© Don Snowden, Los Angeles Times, 2 March 1990