The Art Ensemble of Chicago: Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City
Pi Recordings

Anyone who understandably might have started administering last rites to The Art Ensemble of Chicago in the wake of the untimely passing of trumpeter Lester Bowie in 1999 and bassist Malachi Favors in 2003 will be pleasantly surprised, even chastened, to hear how robustly the band's heart beats on this new double-live set. Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City documents two sets recorded during a rare six-night stint at New York's Iridium Jazz Club in April 2004 (incidentally, it's also the first live AEC recording since 1984's Live in Japan). To some degree that revitalization arrives courtesy of new recruits trumpeter Corey Wilkes and bassist Jaribu Shahid who inherit the chairs of their admittedly irreplaceable predecessors. Having first pronounced itself the Art Ensemble of Chicago in Paris, 1969, the quintet now, compositionally at least, is dominated by Roscoe Mitchell; eight of the twelve pieces are his, with Joseph Jarman credited with one, and the collective the other three. But the original trio plays with as much passion as ever: the saxophones of Mitchell and Jarman frenetically spiral in and around one another while Don Moye's drumming exhibits his customary level of invention and power. Rising to the occasion (and some), Wilkes proves himself a fearless firebrand (check out the amazing solo on “Malachi”), and wisely carves out his own voice while still offering up some signature Bowie splat during “Song for Charles”; Shahid likewise acquits himself well, his fat acoustic sound a fitting substitute for Favors.

If the music here is a little less frenetic than it once was, it still exudes the characteristic AEC traits of improvisatory openness and unpredictability. These masters trustingly follow where their collective music-making takes them and remain eminently faithful to their collective muse. When the band sets out on an extended piece like the nearly-twenty-minute “On the Mountain,” one knows the journey will be full of constant surprise. True to form, it opens with a lyrical tenor solo, then moves into a Moye spotlight, and ultimately segues into a prototypically combustible episode teeming with duck calls, muted trumpet, and serpentine soprano sax runs. It's an album filled with special moments, like “Erika,” which extends the long-standing poetry-jazz tradition, and the fiery free-bop of “Song for Charles.” Still, this is in many ways a different band than the one of twenty-five years ago. Compare the set-ending versions of the group's theme song, “Odwalla,” that appear on 1980's Urban Bushmen and the ones here. The soaring earlier take swings gloriously; the inclusion of Jarman's singing in the slower later versions renders the song more intimate, while the lyrics (“This music comes, comes to you, with love / This sound is the sound of life / This music comes, comes from us, to you / This sound, is the sound of joy”) give the song an affectionate quality. Great Black Music indeed.

December 2006