Friday, February 24, 2006

the Art Ensemble of Chicago's Les Stances a Sophie

The Art Ensemble is a heady topic to write about, and any one of their landmark albums, of which Les Stances is, makes it even more difficult. Here you have one of the foremost free jazz/experimental music outfits of the past four decades (probably of all time), a group that theses and books are written about. For a blog like this to pass judgment on Les Stances, then....

...Well, to some extent, it's kinda easy: Les Stances is certifiably a masterpiece. That's a no-brainer. The soundtrack (haven't seen the film - it's a French new wave flick, coinciding with the Art Ensemble's temporary relocation to Paris in the early 70s) is the Art Ensemble at their most accessible, but with the bubbling tension of experimentation, free jazz noise, and ethno-rhythms that dominate the rest of the Art Ensemble's catalog.

The focus of Les Stances is easily "Theme de Yo Yo," featuring Fontella Bass, who had a pop hit with "Rescue Me" in the 60s and who was married to Art Ensemble member Lester Bowie at the time. Bass belts it out on "Theme de Yo Yo," which is the quintessential funk-jazz hybrid of all time. Bass rumbles "Your love is like an orwhale," with Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman following suit with free jazz blurts, shaping the song into the growliest of growls, the most gutteral of funk. The song, quite simply, can not be perfected further.

The rest of the album is more along the experimental vein, with the Art Ensemble tackling 17th century classical composition. "Variations Sur Un Theme de Monteverdi" is what the title implies, a performance of "Lasciatemi Morire" from Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna. The first version is more cut and dry, an almost gothic performance of a classical piece. The second version is a New Orleans funeral romp, still tinted with darkness, but with a boisterous party atmosphere, a constant theme in much of the Art Ensemble's work - the re-shaping of more 'classical' notions of jazz into modern experimentation.

Or at least I think it is - the Art Ensemble's too complex to summate in a few paragraphs. Couple what I just wrote with the Art Ensemble's involvement with the AACM, American race politics of the time, an arguable Afro-American renaissance of the time...this could go on for days, if not years. Les Stances is a good place to start with the Art Ensemble, if only because "Theme de Yo Yo" could easily be a pop hit on its own (if not for its incredible length), but to start unravelling the album further would require me getting an academic research grant. Until then, check this out: Joseph Jarman's opened a Karate dojo. From preeminent jazz experimentalist to Karate Kid...anything is possible with the Art Ensemble, I suppose.

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