"Great Black Music" was the collective name that Lester Bowie, trumpeter of the Art Ensemble of Chicago gave in the mid-'60s not only to their own sounds but to those of the evolving tradition of jazz-makers, from the New Orleans veterans to the nascent genius of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler.
The term stuck, particularly with the often wild and incendiary performances of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which grew directly from the free directions of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, launched in the Windy City in the early '60s by a group of powerful innovators led by pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and including original members of the ensemble, saxophonists Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell.
With bassist Malachi Favors they became a co-operative drummerless quartet when they relocated to Paris in 1969.
By 1970 Don Moye joined them on drums although their shared multi-instrumentalism made percussionists of them all - with gongs, bells and congas and a plethora of pipes, whistles, conch shells, horns and kazoos continuously sounding off from their midst as they blew and struck from all the eras of the jazz canon, from street marches, church routines, rock, punk, soul and the avant garde, with masks, face paint, African and carnival garb, full of humour, hokum and panache.
From 1978 they began to record for the Munich-based ECM label with their first album, ambiguously titled Nice Guys, with Jarman adopting a fey and playful Jamaican accent on his vocal in the opener Ja.
Bowie plays some raucous half-toned trumpet and the fivesome split apart with sonic ambivalence and timbral laughter.
Folkus emulates birdsong, insect-song, traffic-song and a bizarre mesh of the rural and the very urban, Moye's drums are rampant on 597-59 with Jarman's free riffing alto chorus and Favor's pulsating bassline.
Mitchell's tune Cyp has a braying Bowie and some ghostly woodwind and the 12 minutes of Dreaming Of The Master opens like a Mingus small-group piece with Bowie's muted horn lying back on a bluesy saxophone ensemble followed by some unleashed soaring Mitchell. Altogether a very arresting record.
The year 1980 brought the album Full Force. Opener Magg Zelma with its whistles, cowbells, chicken sounds and echoes of rustic domesticity before Favor's cavernous undertow and Mitchell's bellowing tenor lead into a triad of whirling horns.
Who Charlie M is remains a mystery, but the piece named after him has a bass saxophone basement, a tightly squeezed solo from Bowie and Favors's emphatic heart beat never stops throbbing.
Old Time Southside Street Dance, begun by Jarman's lightning alto, is as quick as possible, while the denouement title tune has Moye's hand-drums, hooting-owl flutes and a virtual cacophony of outlandish horns.
A more ambitious double-CD project was born in May 1980 called Urban Bushmen, with a high degree of self-realisation in an African past and a New York present.
Starting from the Malian annals of Cote Bamako and with Moye's belafon and other instruments of Sun Percussion the Bush Magic moves onto Urban Magin, with, as Jarman tells in his sleeve notes, "flowers blooming through concrete in our urban savannahs, as we stroll down hi-stepping and prancing," for here history comes to now-times - and hear Bowie's sauntering horn celebrate it on the Warm Night Blues Stroll beside Moye's leaping drums and the two reedmen scintillating their way Down The Walkway.
As the steps are retraced to 1980 South Africa in Sun Condition Two and Moye's solo drums present the Soweto Messenger, the defiance of racism and apartheid moves between two continents and the track Entering The City can speak of New York, Johannesburg or Birmingham, Alabama.
The second CD begins with Bowie's aching New York Is Full Of Lonely People, where his horn moans out its alienated testimony above Favors's profoundly rooted bass.
A historical memory of Africa resides at the centre of all the ensemble's music, but hear them swing out, almost Kansas City-style, in the final track Odwalla, as if the fused heritage of two great continents is rising in their blood and in their notes.
Urban Bushmen is doubtlessly their most powerful and thematic achievement, but The Third Decade of 1984 has its moments too.
The bluesy-folk of Prayer For Jimbo is dedicated to Jimbo Kwesi, the first black officer to serve and die in the British army, killed by his own side who thought he was the enemy, with Jarman's synthesizer playing a long salute over Moye's swinging drums.
Or Walking In The Moonlight, inspired by a youthful love poem by Mitchell and what Bowie called "avant pop" at its most sublime.
"The music, the joy, the wonderful happiness that our lives are all about," is how Jarman saw the work of the ensemble. The adventurousness, daring and one-off brilliance too - it's all there in those records.
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