"When we founded our label, I wanted to work with these young musicians from Chicago," recalls the German producer Manfred Eicher in the short introductory text to the voluminous box set that looks back on the ECM years of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The pretext all found is as often a commemoration: the label of the "Most beautiful sound after silence" and the group that imposed the term "Great Black Music" are both celebrating their half-century of existence. And even if it is only ten years later that the quintet will actually integrate the beautiful house Munich. And so much the better if the compiler chooses to integrate in this box set "associated" having been labeled ECM, to complete the four albums produced by the collective on the label. Result, eighteen albums, including the formations of the alchemist in white coat Lester Bowie and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, the two leaders unacknowledged group. "Pivotal" artists, according to the pianist Vijay Iyer, whose small essay underlines the importance of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and ECM, two teats that were bathed several generations, ready for all experiments.
This curious concordance of times is a reminder that, as we were coming out of the 1960s, it was time for change on both sides of the North Atlantic. But what do musicians with colorful looks, adepts of permanent brilliance, and a house with graphically refined blankets, far from any epic, embodied by a man somewhat omniscient? These two poles of improvised music had much more to share than it seems at first sight discreet. To begin, as revealed by the boss of ECM, by the desire to create a new improvised chamber music, after Coltrane, Ornette and Cecil Taylor … but also the construction of a sound "Designated". This finely carved footprint that will be the hallmark of ECM was not unrelated to what saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell had posited as a principle since 1966 by publishing Sound prefiguration of art together. At the time, trumpet player Lester Bowie and bassist Malachi Favors are already alongside the one who will become the main composer-thinker of Art Ensemble. Saxophonist Joseph Jarman (who has just died) and drummer Don Moye will join them soon, setting the format for an explosive formula.
L'Art Ensemble, like ECM, affirmed, each in their own way, a desire to come out of the smoky clubs, to finish with the word jazz, perceived as an enclosure more when all advocated openness polystylistique. The debate has never ceased since then: jazz is not just community music, jazz remains a term imposed by whites, jazz is part of a vast aesthetic continuum, jazz is this, not those … Art Ensemble, become "Chicago" landing in the after-68 in Paris, chose more than once the party to smile, notes of irony that only underscore their argumentative quality, even their anger, while ECM prevailed with his austere authority as the holder of a third current, where the field of contemporary music but also a certain idea of pop culture, trend Nouvelle Vague (Godard), would have all their reasons for being. It was enough to synchronize these two ideas, where abstraction could take as much the contours of free figuration as the form of unbridled improvisation, to produce a crossover without equivalent.
It will be done with the publication of Nice Guys in 1979, an aesthetically pleasing album out of bounds: the quintet begins with an offbeat step, on the reggae side, going through all the states, a thousand harmonic breaks but also a melodic line, and ends with a statement of love to Miles Davis, modal jazz, feverish breaths, superlative rhythms. Class for sure, classic in a sense when we know what the Art Ensemble of Chicago was able to do at the beginning of this decade. The same goes for the following, Full Force in January 1980. Side A: an impressive and impressionistic theme of the bassist Malachi Favors, discreet pillar of the whole, unfolds, crossed by flashes of Lester Bowie, enlightened by the drumming of Don Moye. Face B, back to the blues, with a tribute to Mingus, who died a year earlier, before going into spins, out of any grid … Recorded in stride, in May of the same year, the live double Urban Bushmen remembers in its title that the band has not ceased since its inception to root its kaleidoscopic vision of Great Black Music in the breeding ground of a phantasmagorical Africa, cradle of the urban African-American, invoked here as much by the multiple percussions, explicit titles (Bamako, Soweto Messenger …) but also by the quotes of music of possession (the voodoo of Deep South is never far away) remedy for an ailment that Lester Bowie designates: New York is Full of Lonely People, a depressive ballad at the time of uninhibited liberalism. The album ends with Odwalla, one of the hymns of the collective, a groove not so rare on the part of Roscoe Mitchell, too often considered as a man of concept.
The last collection, The Third Decade recorded in 1984, announces itself by an ode way Space Odyssey, in memory of the first black officer to serve the colonial policies of the Queen of England, an opening with synths worthy of Brian Eno. No break, however: just like the funk that followed, fertile cross between the spirit of the New Orleans marching bands and synthetic sounds, nothing denotes or deflects the group of his project: encapsulate all the music, black and then white too, in a project whose slogan ("Ancient to the Future") could only find a great echo chamber in the postmodern label. Remembering them today can still be used to build tomorrow.
The Art Ensemble Of Chicago and Associated Sets Box of 21 CDs (ECM).