The Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Joseph Jarman has died at the age of 81.
Douglas R. Ewart of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians announced that Jarman passed away in New Jersey although there are no other details so far. The Arkansas-born Chicago raised reedist was an early AACM member in the 1960s and in the Art Ensemble which grew out of the AACM became a world renowned avant gardist staying with the Ensemble until the early-1990s later concentrating on his Zen Buddhist practice and his own solo projects.
For a whole new generation of fans the band is unknown. This is a new mountain of discovery to explore.
If this extraordinary record had come out last year it would have topped a lot of people’s lists and I do not think that anyone will be able to even get close to the quality of this record this year certainly in terms of originality and ambition not to mention the quality of the writing.
How much the band plan to tour this year is impossible to say at this distance but I think when promoters hear this and still have festival spaces to fill they will be getting on the phone pretty quickly when they hear Gold unless that is their idea of a headliner is some sort of lightweight showbiz ivory-tinkler.
The great thing here by contrast is the blues connotation and the quality of the melodies. The style straddles a lot of things and you could be a rock fan or an avant jazz fan, a mix of the two or even someone more attuned to the contemporary classical avant garde and you will get what is going on here. By the way it will give you kicks and not make you come away with the feeling that you should be writing a PhD thesis about it although there are plenty of things to consider and strike you as brand new and innovative.
One of the great things about these sounds is the complete lack of a false corny swing sensibility when you know that swing has become a facsimile for complacency or sentimentality which it often has become in the wrong hands.
As for details of instrumentation Andrew d’Angelo alternates between alto saxophone and bass clarinet; Jim Black as well as drums contributes synth (it can sound like the grandeur of an organ say on his tune ‘Martens’ which has a ‘Round Midnight’ calibre greatness to it) Kurt Rosenwinkel of course is on guitar and not as arrogantly all over the shop as he can be on some of his more mainstream chops-heavy records, while Chris Speed alternates between tenor and clarinet. The tracks were recorded in a studio in 2017.
More impressions? There is a huge tenderness and some tremendous ballad playing here, actually many of the more absorbing passages have a bittersweet quality to them, but they are counterweighted with a brutal sense of the reality of the world in contrasting play. Check the beginning of ‘Lights Out’ for instance when the reeds go into exploratory and very nihilistic mode which almost tears up the band’s own thinking.
There is quite pervasively a social realism to the sound which is the antithesis of romanticism but there is also plenty of imagination thrown in too so this is not a mundane earnest kind of record at all which often bedevils more orthodox free improv which this resembles at times but is ultimately distinct from.
The sax interplay between d’Angelo and Speed is the best thing about it all and certainly narrates the album most so the reeds are your guides at all times to “the story” and underpins everything. Rosenwinkel has to fashion his harmonic colour into a smaller space which challenges him and the listener in the end.
Jim Black is very powerful and shows how world class a player he certainly is in this regard but he is more of an auteur than a drummer if that makes sense.
When an avant garde record is accessible and this certainly is you just know someone has cracked the code and given listeners the key to a certain kind of rare wisdom. Push yourself as a listener. These guys do as players and it works.