While a hallmark of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, wide-open spaces and atomistic sound-rhythms (frequently on found “little instruments”) are an incomplete picture of how AACM groups were aesthetically manifest. Certainly, space was endemic to groups like the Creative Construction Company and records like Joseph Jarman’s As If It Were the Seasons (Delmark, 1968) and Richard Abrams’ Young at Heart, Wise in Time (Delmark, 1969). Although for a time without a regular drummer and with a palette consisting of numerous tone colors from diverse sources, it’s hard to put the Art Ensemble of Chicago in the same aural category as these other AACM ensembles. Though rarely manic, the AEC moved through such a regularly-revolving series of sources and approaches that if anything, space was a concern only in that it allowed a vast array of expressive possibilities.
The AEC had its gestation in reedman-composer Roscoe Mitchell’s group, which recorded Congliptious, its second disc, for Nessa Records in 1968. Sometimes augmented by Jarman (as on Lester Bowie’s contemporaneous Numbers 1 & 2, Nessa n-1), the unit featured Bowie on trumpet and Malachi Favors on bass. Phillip Wilson and Robert Crowder were among the group’s occasional drummers, the latter appearing here. Unexpected deaths dissolved most of Jarman’s group, and by 1969 he was a full-fledged member of the AEC – but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
What’s particularly interesting about the programming of Congliptious is that on vinyl, the first side is taken up with solo pieces by Favors, Mitchell and Bowie, with a lengthy group improvisation taking up side two. Though augmented by short takes of the group pieces “Carefree” and the funky “Tatas-matoes,” the three solos remain grouped together on this CD reissue, its first digital permutation since the Art Ensemble 1967/1968 box (Nessa, 1993). Favors’ “Tutankhamen” starts off the set, a theme equally bouncy and throaty, which quickly develops into a muscular and gritty arco solo of symphonic weight – an expansion of his solo on Mitchell’s Sound (Delmark, 1966). It’s probably safe to say nothing like this had been recorded in improvised music, and though Barre Phillips’ album-length Journal Violon would be waxed later in the year, Favors’ condensed exploration rolls field hollers (both vocal and bowed) and a tremendous, earthy weight into its post-La Faro manhandling.
Though a far cry from the paces put through by 1977’s “Nonaah,” Mitchell’s “THKTE” finds an extraordinary amount of range in its seven and a half minutes. Building from a lone, winsome cry to tortured single-note declamations and cracked staccato, Mitchell’s language is already concerned with detailed and claustrophobic microcosms. That’s not to say he’s entirely isolated from a jazz approach, as bluesy bar-walking phrases creep in halfway through only to stretch into otherworldly multiphonics. Both Mitchell and Favors are reaching a level of naked psychological and instrumental evisceration that, while clearly an outgrowth of tradition, have completely set their own context. Bowie’s “Jazz Death?” is another matter entirely. A spoken introduction leads to a light militaristic march, cut through with deep growls, fat brassy bursts and crisp, darting phrases. There’s a sardonic quality to Bowie’s delivery, but it’s overtaken by steely outward projections, proof that the answer is resoundingly in the negative.
“Congliptious/Old” begins with another martial flourish, lockstep bass saxophone, arco bass and toms exploding into a din of gongs and noisemakers (a la “Rip, Rig & Panic”), before Bowie, accompanied by vibraphone, enters into a brief pastoral theme. There is a continual tension between these delicate scenes of introspective conversation and isolated movement, and the wailing drive of the whole – Mitchell blowing simultaneously on two altos as sharp and wry brass comments and interlocking percussive patter carry the piece forward. Zithers and rattles envelop curling alto, echoed by Favors’ vocal call. Soon the rhythm section starts up in triple-time waves as Bowie intones “sock it to me,” goading the ensemble to viciousness. There’s a frantic “standard” free improvisation in the latter minutes, Bowie and Mitchell going at it full-bore as Crowder and Favors surge and wallop behind them, but nothing in the Art Ensemble lasts forever and the familiar bluesy lope of “Old” rocks in gentle 4/4 to close the side out. Nevertheless split tones and noisemakers, not to mention Crowder’s dry backbeat (which later propelled Phil Cohran’s group), assure that there is nothing stuffy about the tradition of such a piece. Though perhaps the solo compositions that introduce the record are more immediate in their ability to compel, even they act as part of a greater ensemble whole, unified by furious intent and bright wit. If one were to search for a definition to “congliptious,” it’s safe to assume those ideas would be synonymous.
Note: cover image taken from LP issue for proper contrast.
~ Clifford Allen