Week ending 30 May: Chicago jazz now

Another week of the ‘circuit breaker’ as we call lockdown here in Singapore. It’s going well: everyone wears face masks when outside or in stores as they are required to, most stores remain closed but hawker centres and many restaurants are open for take away food and drinks. Shopping malls require a temperature check and ID before entry and so do major supermarkets. The TraceTogether app was launched in March and has been running successfully ever since. The recent surge in infections among the migrant community has been checked and daily local cases are in single or double figures. All Covid-19 cases are published and the recent locations of those infected is made public too. Erosion of public liberty? Sure. But no one complains. Why? Number of Covid-19 cases to date 34,884. Number of deaths 23. As they say – it’s not rocket science.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago in characteristic pose

But there are other issues to address on Cosmic Jazz this week. We draw attention to recent events in America and reflect on how little has changed. Chicago’s riots of 1919 began with the death of Eugene Williams, a black man, and the current US-wide riots began with the death of George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis on 25 May, 2020. Chicago has once more experienced the pain of racial conflict and – as this post is being compiled – the situation continues to worsen.

Thanks to ongoing enlightened governance, Chicago may have escaped the worst of the USA’s racial tensions over the years, but the jazz scene in the windy city has continued to cast a light on what’s happening stateside. The current Chicago scene has some key players who reflect the social activism espoused by perhaps the city’s most famous crusading musician, Curtis Mayfield. From People Get Ready to Right On for the Darkness, Mayfield knew exactly how to capture the mood of the time, and the axis of jazz musicians around the latest incarnation of the Art Ensemble of Chicago have their own stories to tell. We’ll start with current bass player Junius Paul whose own album Ism reflects some of the current tensions through its own sizeable canvas of influences. “It’s just bringing more awareness of those things, so blacks can know their past, and history and that everybody can know, not just us”, he told Jazzwise while in London to play with Shabaka Hutchings. “Obviously, we have to know because it’s ours, but everybody needs to know what’s going on… black, white and in between.”  There’s a fascinating Bandcamp interview here which allows you to access all the music on the album. Listen to the featured tracks Baker’s Dozen and Ase before exploring the whole album and you’ll get an idea of the breadth of this record.

Trumpeter Marquis Hill features on Ism but his own releases are just as strong. His 2018 album Modern Flows II is an excellent example of his recent work. Prayer for the People begins with afrobeat drumming before introducing rapper M’Reid Green, along with rising Blue Note talent Joel Ross on vibes. It Takes a Village is equally powerful and this time features Brandon Alexander Williams on rap vocals. It’s all an excellent example of how jazz has embraced the current rap scene – and to powerful effect. Modern Flows II is highly recommended and available on download here on Bandcamp. Whilst Joel Ross may have gone more mainstream for his first Blue Note release, his music is equally interesting. Yana from the album captures the way that Blue Note has with vibes players – think of Bobby Hutcherson – ethereal and deep. It’s a fine debut.

Self proclaimed beat scientist Makaya McCraven’s drums have driven much of the music of the current Chicago scene, some of it centred on famed venue The Velvet Lounge where Junius Paul cut his teeth as the resident bassist. Owned by Chicago saxophonist Fred Anderson, the venue closed in 2109 although its jazz credentials really ended on Anderson’s death in 2010. Anderson is another musician who really should be better known – listen to him here on Saxoon from his 1979 album Dark Day featuring Chicagoan Hamid Drake on drums. McCraven has been responsible for a number of projects on both sides of the Atlantic and he’s been featured with several of the current crop of British jazz musicians on recordings in London. Perhaps the best place to start with his music is the excellent In the Moment album, now available in a deluxe 3CD/vinyl set – check it out here on Bandcamp. This new version include another 40 minutes of music from the initial 48 hours of live, improvised performance recorded at 1 venue over 12 months and 28 shows. Mostly short tracks at under three minutes, each has something to recommend but, for a longer groove try, Finances from the deluxe edition. In the Moment features an honorary Chicagoan currently making waves with his solo records, guitarist Jeff Parker. He first came to fame with the post rock group Tortoise – and specifically their 1998 album TNT, a more jazz-inflected than most of their output. The title track is a clear indication of this new direction with Parker’s guitar very much to the fore. Currently riding high with his new album for the label, Parker’s music continues to evolve.

His new record on Chicago’s International Anthem label, Suite for Max Brown, is a good example of his deployment of the same studio cutup styles loved by both Tortoise and Makaya McCraven – an exploration of the intersection of live improvisation and modern digital recording techniques of loops, samples and beats. But the record has a more organic heart too – listen to how the kalimba cuts into the groove on the short track Gnarciss.

Parker’s recording method is much like McCraven’s. Beginning with a digital bed of beats and samples, he lays down tracks of guitar, keyboards, bass and percussion before inviting musicians to play and improvise over his melodies. There’s no classic studio arrangement though: each musician usually works alone with Parker before he layers and assembles the individual parts into final tracks. The results feel like in-the-moment jams with the improvisational human spirit that characterises a real live recording.

Which brings us full circle to one of the sources of this current creative river of Chicago jazz – the AACM, or Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians – the collective that gave us the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Founded back in 1965 by Muhal Richard Abrams and Phil Cohran numerous influential jazz musicians have passed through the ranks of the AACM. Percussion Kahil El’Zabar, for example, became their chairman in 1975 – and I’m currently really enjoying his What It Is! album from 2012 on Delmark Records. Here’s the lead off track The Nature Of, featuring Kevin Nabors on tenor sax and on Justin Dillard on Hammond B3 organ and – yes – Junius Paul on bass. This record really does swing! For more El’Zabar try his Ritual Trio and a tune from the excellent African N’da Blues album, featuring the great Pharoah Sanders. Here is the delightful Africanos/Latinos with Susana Sandoval on vocals and Malachi Favors from the Art Ensemble of Chicago on bass.

So where to start with the AEC themselves? Let’s begin at the beginning. The initial Roscoe Mitchell Sextet included Mitchell on tenor sax, trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors and the great Phillip Wilson on drums. All of musicians were multi-instrumentalists and played a huge range of conventional and what they called ‘small instruments’ – from conch shells to whistles. In 1968 they decamped to Paris where they released some of their first records under the AEC banner. Film soundtrack Le Stances a Sophie was recorded at this time – here’s the famous Theme de Yoyo with vocals by Fontella Bass. On returning to the US in 1972 the AEC recorded more than 20 albums through to 2004 – really their period of peak creativity.

Take this example of their extraordinary live performances – complete with face paints (and Lester Bowie in his characteristic doctor’s coat) at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1991. They were very much still on fine form here with their original lineup before Lester Bowie’s death in 1999. The tune is the signature Ohnedaruth which appeared first on the excellent Phase One album from 1971. If you’re looking for a good quality live recording, Urban Bushmen on the ECM label captures the group on tour in 1980 or – for a more chaotic, but inspired, live recording – try the famous Bap-tizum from 1972 on Atlantic. This also features a lengthy take on Ohnedaruth – compare the two!

More inspirational music next week on Cosmic Jazz. Until then – enjoy!

Neil is listening to…

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