Art Ensemble of Chicago:
Still Pushing the Boundaries of Jazz

Art Ensemble Of Chicago - Coming Home Jamaica
(Atlantic Records)
4 stars (out of 5 stars)

Story by Tony Bonyata

It's been awhile since anything in the jazz world has really made a stir. From the turn of the century traditional jazz of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and New Orleans Dixieland to Big Band swing (a sound that is back in vogue today) as well as the cool sounds of be-bop from the 50's, it seems that this music form has been evolving from one entity to another only to find this creative development unfortunately coming to an end somewhere in the late sixties with the brilliant, often misunderstood, jazz sounds of the avant garde, otherwise known as 'free jazz'. Formed in 1967, Lester Bowie (trumpet), Roscoe Mitchell (saxophone), Joseph Jarman (saxophone) and Malachi Favors (bass) set out to blend all previous incarnations of jazz with a new found sense of exploration and creativity. Their live performances found them cloaked in tribal robes and hats, along with faces painted with African ceremonial designs - a reminder to the audience that this artform's has a direct link to their African ancestors.
In 1969 the band, completed with the addition of multi-percussionist Famoudou Don Moye, moved to Paris, then a burgeoning haven for black American musicians, and were quite prolific in their recordings. They returned to the States after gaining a huge reputation in the European jazz world and went on to form lucrative recording contracts with ECM, EMI and Atlantic Records. A few of their more notable releases from those labels include People In Sorrow (1969), Nice Guys (1978), Full Force (1980) and Urban Bushman (1980).
Although Jarman has since left the band to explore his own spirituality, the Art Ensemble's latest offering, Coming Home Jamaica, finds the band reexamining many of their original ideals on a welcome, return-to-form album. Opening up with the enthusiastic "Grape Escape" Bowie and Mitchell's horns slip and slide over the rhythms of a New Orleans brass band. They tone things down a bi with the sad-eyed horns on the melancholy "Odwalla Theme" as well as the gentle number "Villa Tiarno". "Strawberry Mango" finds the band in a more playful mood with Don Moye's clap-trap percussion and the sporadic blowings of a bicycle horn, while "Lotta Colada" has as much of a zesty kick as one too many of said tropical elixir.
Like the best of jazz music throughout history, the overall feel of Coming Home Jamaica has a live, improvised feel to it (kind of a well-rehearsed spontaneity, if you will). At times the band clicks into a groove or melody that melds together as one, but then, in mid-song, their instruments break away from one another, each headstrung on their own agenda.
The avant garde stylings of the past are not overlooked as they prove on this album. Although "Malachi", with horns that cry, stutter and wail over a parched, barren background of silence, is a bit self-indulgent, the odd cerebral sounds of Bowie and Mithell's horns on "Jamaica Farewell" are strangely comforting, as they seem to be communicating with one another in some alien musical language. It's on the epic "Mama Wants You" that the individuals of this ensemble are all on the same page, if not at times, however, in different books. Opening up with horns that seem to be taunting each other with the phrase "mama wants you", the members all come together for a cool, rousing jam that'll have your limbs moving in time before Bowie, Mitchell, Favors and Don Moye all take off with different itineraries, ultimately revisiting each other from where they began, 10 minutes later in the song .
With only a handful of 'true' jazz artists still producing music worthy of the title 'jazz', the Art Ensemble of Chicago are probably one of the few bands that can keep this artform from becoming just a sound of the past.

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