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Art Ensemble of Chicago - Non-cognitive Aspects of the City - Live at Iridium

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Artist: Art Ensemble of Chicago

Album: Non-cognitive Aspects of the City - Live at Iridium

Label: Pi Recordings

Review date: Aug. 27, 2006

When veteran AEOC trumpeter Lester Bowie died in 1999, the future of the group seemed in doubt; upon bassist Malachi Favors’ passing in 2003, after two remarkable discs for Pi, the Art Ensemble’s tenure seemed to be over. But rumors of the band's death were greatly exaggerated, and this new double disc, recorded at New York’s Iridium in March and April 2004, speaks to new vitality, continued strength and a depth of feeling and experience beyond anything I anticipated.

The set provides unexpected revelations. Multi-instrumentalist, poet, Buddhist priest and martial artist Joseph Jarman’s return to the fold following a 10-year absence solidified the group after Bowie’s death, and his continued presence helps in keeping the group a force with which to be reckoned. On the Iridium gigs, his playing can be remarkably simple until a key moment; he might play bare motives and stark scales on tenor, varying note length as he rehearses the simplest material, until that instant when he catches fire, exploding into some anti-pyrotechnical yet forceful post-Coltrane runs and swirls, electrifying the group instantly. I’ve never heard anyone even attempt such a sudden transformation, let alone pull it off with such staggering results, as demonstrated in “Till Autumn.” 

While Jarman’s playing delineates a newly permeable set of boundaries between reserve and power, Roscoe Mitchell plays as freshly and consistently as he always has, and the same can be said for Don Moye, whose drumming has taken on a new transparency in quieter moments, sometimes giving the group the same sheen as in the early Paris days, before an actual drummer had joined the ranks. 

The two newcomers filling out the front lines certainly sound well-assimilated. Trumpeter Corey Wilkes and bassist Jaribu Shahid more than adequately solo with vehement invention and support the vets when necessary. To my ears, Wilkes exemplifies the image of the young lion, surviving hairpin turns and stopping on a dime at bop, blues and the more radical nameless styles and techniques appropriated in the 1960s. 

These players are capable of anything the AEOC ever served up — just check out “Song for my Sister,” my favorite of the tracks here. It’s a beautiful song-poem, shadow-echoing Muhal Richard Abrams’ Delmark work some 36 years later, a beautifully continuous bell giving the piece a more mystical aura. The mesmerizing counterpoint that ends this masterpiece will melt the hardest, most skeptical heart with its clear traditional references and the freshness of phrase at every turn.

No fear, lots of great “free” blowing all over the set, but the balance is what I find impressive, and both discs end, symmetrically, with deep-down funky versions of "Odwalla," pulling everything together. This is not one to be missed; long time fans and new converts alike will be thrilled to hear these sounds. Non-cognitive Aspects of the City is freedom and homage in perfect measure.

By Marc Medwin

Other Reviews of Art Ensemble of Chicago

Selected Recordings

Tribute to Lester

Early Combinations

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View all articles by Marc Medwin

Find out more about Pi Recordings

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