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Art Ensemble of Chicago - Early Combinations

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Artist: Art Ensemble of Chicago

Album: Early Combinations

Label: Nessa

Review date: Nov. 19, 2012

The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s evolution during the mid- to late-1960s is a thing of great awe and beauty. Borne out of Roscoe Mitchell’s involvement with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the original Roscoe Mitchell Sextet released Sound in 1965 before eventually parsing down to a quartet that became the Art Ensemble and, ultimately, the qualifier “of Chicago” by way of an inadvertently helpful Parisian promoter in 1969. Wedged between the promising early days focusing on the “little instruments” and their later, famously self-referential jazz is a period that saw the protagonists testing freedom’s waters and, it goes without saying, each other. Early Combinations is a brief but useful window into this two-year stopover.

The release of Early Combinations is also notable for finally completing producer Chuck Nessa’s reissues for the essential but long-out-of-print box set, Art Ensemble 1967/68, that collected all of the available recordings from these years. The two songs featured here are a link in the timeline between Old/Quartet’s “Quartet” (from May of ’67) and “Solo” (late November), which eventually paved the way for 1968’s definitive solo exposé, Congliptious. But even without the chronological background, Early Combinations is a stirring and loose performance from a group of talented musicians at the cutting edge of jazz’s avant-garde.

The first half is “A to Ericka,” a submission from September 1967 to what I gather was the Jazz Jamboree in Warsaw, Poland a month later. The song was rejected and the Ensemble wouldn’t make it to Europe for another two years, but it’s a thrilling piece of music all the same (part of which would morph into “Ericka” off 1969’s A Jackson in Your House). What sounds like a toy train whistle blows and we’re underway; an increasingly accelerated chant cuts out with the bang of a gong, giving way to a woozy run that locks all attendees in on themes tangentially and infrequently. What AEC lifers Mitchell and Joseph Jarman are doing with their various reed instruments — alto and soprano saxophones, flutes, and clarinets are credited to both — is wild and unrefined; who exactly is inserting the windchimes, harmonica, and assorted other sounds in here remains unclear, though Malachi Favors is backed by second bassist Charles Clark. After ebbing and flowing for 15 minutes, “A to Ericka” releases the tension with a concluding quarter that flies off the handle in the song’s final minutes: The saxophones sound like barbarous animals and you get the impression everyone is pogo-ing in place, losing it on their respective instruments. The piece is comparatively settled for the final minute and a half, as Barker’s percussion slows proceedings to a crawl and a slide whistle winks at the self-serious heaviness of it all.

The succinctly titled “Quintet” from early November of ’67 is constructed differently. Jarman’s piece — a dress rehearsal for a concert later that day which was eventually cancelled — starts off with a barebones back-and-forth between Bowie’s trumpet and Barker’s drumming before the saxophones start in a little north of nine minutes. Even so, Bowie remains the flittering focal point off which the other members draw their energy. At times much more languid and contemplative, “Quintet” nonetheless shows Mitchell, Jarman, Bowie, Favors and Barker in top form and, it should be noted, more exacting in their execution. It’s a more conservative piece on a whole musically, but the lack of additional distractions allows for greater focus on each player’s strengths. I’m still hearing them dozens of listens in.

Historical significance aside, it’s also interesting to hear the minutiae of Early Combinations coming out in the spaces between the playing. Recorded by Terry Martin (who also provides photography for this release) in the living room of Bowie’s home, Steve Wagner’s mastering job thankfully makes clearer the shouts off mic or an accidental cough. Though they burn with the inexact intensity of a live show, we’re better off that their submission got rejected and their concert was cancelled. There’s no more timeless a way to showcase the Art Ensemble’s timeless ambition.

By Patrick Masterson

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