1967: Roscoe Mitchell - The Complete Old/Quartet Sessions

The Art Ensemble of Chicago was one of the most visible and popular groups of the jazz vanguard throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, presenting emotionally powerful and often theatrical suites of free improvisation, rigorous composition and curveballs pointing to African highlife and early jazz. Despite the deaths of founding members trumpeter Lester Bowie (1941-1999) and bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut (1927-2004), and the health concerns that have frequently sidelined reedman Joseph Jarman, the group has soldiered on into the 21st century with its complex approach to “Great Black Music – Ancient to the Future.” Out of print for many years, their early work for Nessa Records was reissued in 1993 as a lavish boxed set — as that’s long sold out, the label has recently remastered the material and released it separately. The works comprise Bowie’s All the Numbers (1967, previously known as Numbers 1 & 2) and reedman Roscoe Mitchell’s Congliptious (1968) and Old/Quartet (1967, first issued in 1975).

Old/Quartet is the most recent offering and presents the very first iteration of the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble across two discs and seven tracks. Here, Philip Wilson (1941-1992) is heard on drums; the lack of paying gigs sent him on the road with Paul Butterfield later that year and it wasn’t until 1970 that the AEC found a stable drummer in Famoudou Don Moye. Like other groups derived from Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the Art Ensemble was known for its broad, spacious improvisations and use of ‘little instruments’ – kazoos, whistles, bells, and tin cans filled with water – and a bevy of percussion. Without a jazz-drummer’s time, the monstrous chug of Favors’ bass could supply locomotion, drone and swing, supporting the horns’ flights as on the title track to their 1969 Tutankhamen LP (Freedom). But it’s quite another thing to hear Mitchell and Bowie trade angular volleys atop sashaying, detailed rumbas from Wilson’s limbs in the closing minutes of “Quartet No. 2”, a thirty-seven minute open improvisation. “Solo” closes out the first disc in sparse near-lullaby as Mitchell moves from alto to mallet percussion and tam-tam, with haranguing pops and shrieks maintaining a caressing conviction. Minus Bowie, the group works through a variation on “Oh Susanna” at the start of the second disc. The “song” is obscured and gradually unfolds as a tonal study for alto saxophone, bass, and percussion. Even at this early stage, the wit, camaraderie, and logic of the ensemble are displayed in vivid colors. Whether you’re a longtime fan or a recent convert to creative improvisation, you owe it to yourself to investigate the Art Ensemble on Nessa.

Note: Nessa Records does not have a website but their releases are available from better brick-and-mortar and online music retailers.

DeLorean

There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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