The Art Ensemble of Chicago and William Parker

Art Ensemble of Chicago
Coming Home Jamaica

William Parker/In Order To Survive
The Peach Orchard
AUM Fidelity

OVER 30 YEARS ago the Art Ensemble of Chicago blew up out of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), tempering the fury of free jazz with an approach that incorporated the nuances of space and mood and injected Art with a liberal dose of theatricality and fun. Consistently among jazz's most stylish architects, the AEOC has made a career out of constructing oddball--and often oddly beautiful--structures in which a funhouse door is an entry to the haunted hall of mirrors. In recent years, collaborative efforts have largely taken a backseat to individual projects. For their first record in six years, the Art Ensemble journeyed to Jamaica, where they produced what is arguably their most amiable and accessible recording to date. Coming Home Jamaica proves once again that a band can still innovate by digging around in the boneyard.

Lester Bowie's "Grape Escape" kicks things off with the sort of loose-limbed exuberance that has long been the trumpeter's trademark, with Bowie and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell trading bleats and wails while the rhythm section thumps away like a runaway New Orleans brass band. Mitchell's "Odwalla Theme" sounds like a Wayne Shorter outtake from his mid-'60s heyday, and Mitchell's other contributions--"Jamaica Farewell" and "Malachi"--are characteristically angular little suites that showcase the band's ability to move from the muscular to the crepuscular in a matter of moments. "Mama Wants You" is a cool little stroll with a few signature eruptions, and in the obvious spirit of the affair, the group tosses in a couple of ska-tinged numbers to round out a thoroughly enjoyable and welcome comeback.

Yet if Coming Home Jamaica seems at times to represent something of an abdication of the Art Ensemble's place in the free-music vanguard, fans of the new New Music can take heart that there are plenty of recent signs that the ongoing insurrection is beginning to step out from under the slim shadow of the slick early-'90s neo-bop resurgence. At the forefront of free jazz's umpteenth underground is bassist-composer William Parker, a guy who is hugely responsible for leading a new generation of musicians through the doors that the Art Ensemble helped kick down in the '60s. The New Yorker has been an active player on the second-fiddle free-jazz scene for almost as long as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, honing his frontline skills in a long association with Cecil Taylor that dates back to the early 1970s. Today his discography reads like a free-music Who's Who: He's played and recorded with Frank Lowe, Billy Bang, Peter Brotzmann, Charles Gayle, Roscoe Mitchell, and, most recently, David S. Ware.

Parker's latest outing as a leader, The Peach Orchard--eight dense, long-form compositions spread over two CDs--reveals a performer who has taken everything he learned from Taylor and applied it to his music with a strong dosage of Mingus-like energy and rigor. The result is a bracing, textured mélange with touchstones all over the jazz map. Rob Brown's acid alto sounds like Jackie McLean one moment and Jimmy Lyons the next. And the best of these songs suggest prime mid-Atlantic Mingus clashing with Taylor at his percussive and inscrutable best. This is surprisingly happy, free music. Parker, in tandem with astonishing drummer Susie Ibarra, lashes and drives the band through his songs with unabated energy and imagination. He can lope and groove, and then lead the proceedings into a merciless squall, as on the title cut. On disc two's "Leaf Dance," he takes Coltrane's "Alabama" over the top to its logical conclusion, with the shitstorm delivered rather than merely inferred, as on the original.

Throughout The Peach Orchard, Parker and his cohorts serve up consistently entertaining and challenging music--the best sort of sustained and ecstatic racket imaginable.

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