|One Final Note Review: How much did the jazz world lose when Lester Bowie died? What I miss most is his great wisdom and pitiless honesty. And of course, he took with him much of jazz's sense of humor—something the music could certainly use in these trying times. There's no one remotely like him out there right now and I think we haven't entirely come to grips with that sad fact.
I hear Lester's absence in the many poignant silences that are almost the signature sound of Tribute to Lester, a September 2001 recording with Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors Maghostut and Don Moye. Not surprisingly, there's a somber feeling in much of this session.
But there's also celebration, like the festive gongs and bells that close Moye's bubbling percussion workout "Sangaredi". It's almost an overture, preparing the listener that something auspicious and magical is about to happen—Mitchell's three-movement "Tribute to Lester". Next is "Zero/Alternate Line", taken at a deliciously behind-the-beat lope (and a bit slower than the charging version recorded on 1984's The Third Decade, and which featured a roaring Bowie solo), with a little two-bar turnaround that looks back to bebop. Fans of Mitchell's recent Delmark recordings and Song for My Sister will know the territory.
Favors' "Tutankhamun" starts out elegaicly on bass saxophone over a broadly swinging tempo. When the theme emerges eight minutes later on soprano and echoed in the bass and drums, it's a celebration, a procession from darkness to light. That light grows blinding on "As Clear As The Sun", a whirling, nearly 13-minute sopranino saxophone solo over mad rhythm, and delivered seemingly in a single breath. I don't know anybody who could do this (or who would even attempt it), a stunning and almost defiant statement about the staying power (and just plain power) of a group founded almost forty years ago as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble.
The concluding "little instruments" piece "He Speaks to Me Often in Dreams" sounds too small-scaled and anticlimactic after the majesty of "As Clear as the Sun", but what better way to celebrate the spirit of Lester Bowie than by defying convention?
Celebration is the tone of The Meeting, as well. Recorded last spring in Wisconsin, The Meeting marks Joseph Jarman's return to the band after a ten-year absence to run a Buddhist dojo in New York. He opens the CD with the insanely catchy "Hail We Now Sing Joy". It's a winding pentatonic melody whose character (and lyrics, sung by Jarman) are reminiscent of Sun Ra's more inside efforts of the 60s and 70s. Favors has a long, suite-like piece (a series of solos, actually), and there are a couple of "little instruments" pieces that, with their Tibetan bowls and tiny gongs, seem infused by Jarman's meditative monasticism. Not merely filler, they are full of mystery and portent. But pride of place goes to the title cut, another collective firestorm of a Roscoe Mitchell piece with all four members fully engaged and at the top of their game.
Is Bowie missed? That goes without saying. There were moments where I expected to hear a "blat" delivered with his perfect comic timing or occasions set-up for an incendiary, out-of-nowhere solo. By and large, these are two fairly serious CDs. Bowie's crackling wit was often the conscience of the band. But with Jarman back in the fold, the AEC is a band to contend with, and the motto, "Great Black Music—Ancient to the Future", never sounded so reassuring. Hail we now sing joy!
Art Ensemble of Chicago: Roscoe Mitchell (piccolo, flute, bass & great bass recorders, sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor & bass saxophones, percussion cage); Malachi Favors (bass, percussion); Don Moye (drums, African drums, congas, bongo drums); Joseph Jarman (wooden flutes, C flute, Eb flute, bass flute, Eb sopranino clarinet, sopranino, alto & tenor sax, percussion, wooden stand drum, bells, gongs, table vibraphone, whistle)