At this point, the story of the inception of the AACM is relatively well known, particularly with the publication of George Lewis' landmark A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. Anyone with a passing interest in the development of American experimental music knows about Roscoe Mitchell's groundbreaking album Sound, which re-contextualized collective improvisation by focusing on the balance of sound and silence, timbre and texture, gesture and line rather than linear interaction or massing of energy and dynamics. Here masterful instrumental technique sidled up against the use of toys, bells, gongs, and the array of "little instruments." Of course Spontaneous Music Ensemble, AMM, Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza were exploring sound in contemporaneous manners at around the same time, but unlike those European counterparts, Mitchell and his AACM counterparts saw their music as an extension of the jazz tradition and "Great Black Music: From the Ancient to the Future." Documents like Old Quartet, Anthony Braxton's Three Compositions of New Jazz, and Muhal Richard Abrams' Levels and Degrees of Light would follow in short order. But what had been missing, up until now, was a glimpse of the synthesis of this music. Where were the recordings of Muhal's Experimental Band? What was the synthesis of Sound?
Finally, the estimable Nessa label has stepped in, unearthing a monumental recording from the vaults. Here we have Mitchell's quartet with Fred Berry on trumpet, Malachi Favors on bass, and Alvin Fielder on drums, with a pristinely recorded set from 1965, a year before Sound. This group had been working together for close to a year before these sessions and what is immediately evident is how much the four had developed a distinctive ensemble approach to the free extensions of jazz. It is easy to take the short-hand route and compare this to Ornette Coleman's quartet but while there is no doubt that the group was aware of Coleman's music, this has a decidedly individual sound, based in strong part on the compositions Mitchell and crew used as the foundation of their music.
Even at this early stage, Mitchell's alto playing displays the single-minded acerbic tone and labyrinthine sense of form that continues to be so central to his music. Trumpet player Fred Berry is a new name to me. Coming up through the ranks of big band jazz and bop, he brought a tie to the tradition while providing a solid counter-voice to Mitchell; also contributing the wistful ballad "Green" to the session. Favors' bass would be a central part of Mitchell's music for decades, and here his sense of free pulse, color, and compositional flow provide an anchor throughout. Fielder rounds things out perfectly. Like Ed Blackwell, with whom he studied in the '50s, the drummer imbues things with a limber, tuneful swing. The band attacks the pieces, spinning out energized extensions of the melodic themes with solo spots that cascade into overlapping duos or collective interplay. Threads of free-bop are stretched taught, caterwauling along on the opening "Mr. Freddy." But those conventions are exploded altogether on a piece like "Outer Space" which starts with the ensemble circling around fragmented themes, driving to sections of searing intensity only to back off to open things up and then amp up again. Here are the seeds of what was to come a year later. And take a listen to Favors' piece "Akhenaten" with the shifting layers of free harmonies and rhythms goaded along by Mitchell's acidic alto, Berry's clarion trumpet, Favors' mercuric pulsing lines, and Fielder's lithe, stuttering drums and one can hear the seeds of the Art Ensemble. This one is a worthy listen on its own merits and downright essential for the historical gap it fills.
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