Urban bushmen at play
Peter Baklava | Charles City, Iowa | 08/07/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Long before anyone had ever heard of John Zorn, there was an avant garde jazz band using duck calls, squeaky toys, and all manner of experimentation. This is a reissue of a 1970 Art Ensemble of Chicago album. 1969-70 was a period of extreme fertility for this band, and I'll go out on a limb and proclaim it: the Art Ensemble's late Sixties/early 70's albums were second only to Miles Davis' albums in quality and importance to the jazz of the time.
Fontella Bass was an R&B singer in the 60's before she married Lester Bowie (the Art Ensemble's trumpeter) and started laying down some landmark jazz/funk.
This album consists of two long-form compositions: "How Strange/Old Jed" and "Horn Web".
"How strange, Old Jed fell into the well. Well, I just never thought that it would end this way, but it did. Never knew Jed to be wearing a loose head. How strange, I'm just saying, how strange." That is the totality of the lyric sheet that Bass sings.
My interpretation is that it is a variant on Billy Holiday's "Strange Fruit", and the lament for "Old Jed" is, in reality, a not so fond farewell for "Uncle Tom". As Bass breaks into laughter at one point, reacting to the lyric, a male voice starts doing what can best be described as a 'chain gang holler.' It's pretty hard to miss the point.
The Art Ensemble uses a plethora of instruments on these compositions, demonstrating complete mastery. They shift from bop improvisation to New Orleans to African to classical waltz effortlessly. These compositions are rich tapestries of sound.
The Art Ensemble expressed a lot of moods within their music. The combination of sardonic humor, macabre theatre, and ghetto feeling made a lot of people a bit uncomfortable.
These reissues should help revive interest and remind people how amazing this group could be.