The Art Ensemble of Chicago plays the kind of freeform music that’s been largely written out of the approved Wynton Marsalis-Ken Burns jazz timeline. Their commitment to spontaneity and collective improvisation has made their work highly erratic: albums of blazing originality and power sit alongside wandering, aimless discs in which the group’s trademark menagerie of “little instruments” — kazoos, whistles, bike horns, finger cymbals and the like alongside traditional jazz axes — come off sounding like an art therapy session at the local group home. But a few of their records have followed me through various format changes, and at the top of the heap is their soundtrack for the 1971 film Les Stances a Sophie, the DVD release of which is covered here by Glenn Kenny.
Your life is no poorer if you haven’t seen the film, which is memorable chiefly for the presence of Nouvelle Vague siren Bernadette Lafont, but jazzbos will be intrigued by the way director Moshe Mizrahi uses AEC members and even incorporates a group performance into the story. With its penchant for masks, face paint and ritualistic onstage moves, the AEC has always been a highly filmable group, and Mizrahi’s footage lets you see them at an early peak.
Certainly “Theme de YoYo” (posted above) has been a perennial AEC favorite. I’ve always thought the song had a strong Charles Mingus flavor, with its forceful bass line and rhythmic drive — attributes not often found in later AEC recordings. The lyrics, sung by Fontella Bass (at that time the wife of trumpeter Lester Bowie), make for a tart commentary on the film’s war-of-the-sexes storyline.
Mizrahi met the AEC in Paris, where the group had moved in 1969 to find better gigs and bigger audiences than they could get Stateside. The band, which had emerged from saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell’s various groups, acquired its Chicago moniker in Europe. It also recorded a brace of wild albums, among which Les Stances a Sophie stands the tallest.
The band returned to the States in 1972 and began building on its early notices with records like Bap-Tizum and Fanfare for the Warriors, peaking in the late Seventies and early Eighties with a series of releases for Manfred Eicher’s ECM label: Nice Guys, Full Force and Urban Bushmen.
I stopped following the group in the late Eighties, though I did check in with Lester Bowie’s various side-projects until his untimely death from cancer in 1999. The diminished AEC’s tribute to Bowie, held January 2000 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, was a deeply saddening affair. The show opened with the World Saxophone Quartet, which never lost sight of the need to maintain a rhythmic pulse even as it pursued some pretty extreme musical ideas. By contrast, the AEC performance was an aimless hour of squeaks, trills and blats that had audience members skulking out the exit doors well before the show wheezed to a halt. I haven’t heard any of the recordings from the reconstituted AEC, but I can’t imagine they found a substitute for Bowie’s inventive wit and lab-coated visual presence.
The initial ECM release, Nice Guys, presents the Ensemble at its most accessible and listenable, and if you’re new to the AEC you will probably want to start there. The followup, Full Force, has aged badly, but many people still swear by the concert recording Urban Bushmen. If Nice Guys leaves you wanting more, I recommend Americans Swinging in Paris, which combines Les Stances a Sophie with the hard-to-find People in Sorrow, a demanding but ultimately moving record that shows how the AEC could wring powerful music from its barnyard of little instruments.