Tuesday, June 4, 2013

BYG Actuel 02: Art Ensemble of Chicago - A Jackson in Your House

Even though I think all of the group’s members are incredible players and a few of their group albums are free jazz masterpieces, I still really struggle with much of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s music. A good portion of their most early work as a group sounds to me like collections of interesting elements thrown together in a haphazard way. They eventually honed in on what they were trying to do and became fairly consistent at tapping into that, but their early stuff, including their debut album A Jackson in Your House from 1969, is more noteworthy as a look into the group’s evolution than as a standalone recording.

Prior to A Jackson in Your House, the members of the AEC had collaborated on several albums by the group’s individual members starting with the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet’s brilliantly iconoclastic Sound in 1966. While these albums are great, they each clearly have one leader steering the group’s music, whether it be Mitchell (on Sound and Congliptious) or Lester Bowie (on Numbers 1&2). Their first recorded forays under the AEC name and their BYG albums especially show their first attempts to perform truly leaderless music. It took a few years to really work out the kinks in this democratic approach to their art.

A Jackson in Your House is an especially frustrating release due to a pretty severe disparity in quality between sides. On the three songs on the first side, we get a lot of the primary signifiers of the Art Ensemble, including their trademark little instruments, but everything sounds jumbled, as if the parts were mixed around in a hat and played in a random order. On the opening title track, the group switches back and forth between a melody that seems like it was reverse engineered from some old forgotten New Orleans jazz 78 and periods of ambient percussion, along with the kind of frustrating vocal diversions that the AEC was so fond of early on but haven’t aged well. Sonically diverse free jazz songs are the norm, but in “A Jackson in Your House,” tonal shifts are so abrupt that it barely hangs together as one piece. “Get in Line” eschews the subtlety of the opening track almost completely to much greater effect. The song starts with a whistle that scared my cats and things don’t let up until the end, with howling saxes, Lester Bowie’s blustery trumpet, and Malachi Favors’ incredible bass work (more on that later). Still, “Get in Line” sounds too much like the work of other groups with the Art Ensemble’s little instruments sprinkled on top. The outro, where the horns get eaten alive by a prolonged blast of percussion from all of the group’s members, is incredible, but it doesn’t feel entirely earned. The final track on side one, “The Waltz,” is a pleasant little speakeasy number that predicts some of the instrumental tracks on Tom Waits albums a decade and a half later. Ultimately though, it’s just a pleasant end to one of the least resonant album sides from the prolific first ten years of the AEC’s recorded career.

Side two opens with a poem delivered by Malachi Favors over a sparse bed of percussion. It’s pretty good, but knowing that the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets were about to come up the next year, it can’t help but feel a little bit underwhelming. The muted saxophone that accompanies the second half of the poem is gorgeous, but “Ericka” is really just a preamble to the side-filling “Song for Charles.” The piece is dedicated to the late fellow Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians member Charles Clark, who passed away just two months before this album was recorded. Fittingly for a song devoted to a great bassist, “Song for Charles” is one of Malachi Favors best career showings, and he completely outshines his also excellently-performing group mates. Extended vibraphone (courtesy of Joseph Jarman), bell, and bass parts bleed into plaintive but increasingly worshipful horns. If their goal was to sum up the AACM’s guiding principles while channeling one of the association’s young prodigies, then the Art Ensemble more than succeeded here. “Song for Charles” works in many ways as a sequel to Roscoe Mitchell’s “Sound,” in that it is a wonderfully exploratory trip through the limits of music and the edge of pure sound. Even though Mitchell wrote all of the album’s songs—Jarman’s “Ericka” excluded—“Song for Charles” rightly sounds like the work of five musicians of one mind. And then it ends abruptly. They said all they felt they needed to say about Charles Clark and moved onto their other pursuits, including two more BYG/Actuel albums.

Coming together as the Art Ensemble inspired an immediate flurry of activity for these four musicians, and they followed A Jackson in Your House with six more albums in 1969 alone, followed by nine more by the end of 1972, along with several great solo records. A Jackson in Your House is not one of the first records you should grab from this early AEC run, nor is it one of the best or most representative Actuel records, as it’s a self-contained group with none of the anything goes community vibe that can be found on the Shepp band’s members’ albums. Still, the Art Ensemble’s first appearance on this label, and their time in Paris that coincided with it, serve as an important if underappreciated milestone in jazz history. The AACM Chicago approach to free music was so wildly different from what the New York cats had been doing for ten years and the older NY musicians had no choice but to dive into the uncharted waters that the AACM was navigating once the two camps met. The loft jazz scene of the seventies would not have existed without the influx of Chicago and St. Louis musicians to Lower Manhattan that was sparked by the Art Ensemble’s[1] first Paris interactions and collaborations with musicians from the East Coast.

Coming up in the weeks ahead:
Actuel 03: Sunny Murray – Hommage to Africa
Actuel 04: Archie Shepp – Yasmina, a Black Woman
Actuel 05: Gong – Magick Brother
Actuel 06: Claude Delcloo & Arthur Jones – Africanasia
Actuel 07: Michel Puig – Stigmates

[1] And Anthony Braxton’s quartet that was also in Paris recording for Actuel.

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