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Music reviews: The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Rustin Man, Beirut and more

JAZZ The Art Ensemble of Chicago and associated ensembles

THE ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO AND ASSOCIATED ENSEMBLES (ECM)

Lester Bowie, the joker in the Art Ensemble pack.Credit:Roberto Masotti/ECM.

★★★★★

It was a life-changing event: the breadth of music, the profundity, the virtuosity and the presentation all elevated one to near-ecstasy. This was in 1980, the Art Ensemble of Chicago's only Sydney concert. As sensational as their albums were, to encounter one of music's most revolutionary entities live was to step through a musical looking-glass into another world.

Before a note was played one was already floored by the countless instruments and striking costumes. While saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell (the band's founder) opted for humble street clothes, trumpeter Bowie (the joker in the pack) donned a white doctor's coat, and saxophonist Joseph Jarman, bassist Malachi​ Favors​ Maghostut​ and drummer Famoudou​ Don Moye​ all wore elaborate African tribal attire and painted faces. A theatrical flourish that emphasised their African heritage, it was a visual manifestation of their motto: "Great Black Music – ancient to the future".

All were multi-instrumentalists who punctuated their repertoire with drum chants which could be so melodic and harmonised as to be more like drum choirs. The band formed with the specific intent of seeing how improvised music evolved if the same group cohered for decades. In the event they sustained the same personnel for 24 years, and the group has now existed in some guise for 50 years.

This 21-disc treasure-trove (and a 296-page book) contains the Art Ensemble's five ECM albums (many having been recorded for other companies), plus four by Bowie and four courtesy of Mitchell's bristling musical intelligence. Additional material includes Mitchell or Bowie in groups led by Wadada​ Leo Smith, Evan Parker or Jack DeJohnette​, among them DeJohnette's​ burning Made in Chicago. It becomes a grand history of African American music, via one stupendous band and its offshoots.

Nice Guys was their first ECM recording, and producer Manfred Eicher's​ widescreen​ stereo imaging and luxuriant reverberation presented the band's many intricacies with a clarity very similar to their live aesthetic. The highlight was Jarman's The Master, and this CD version contains the same thrilling dynamic range as the original vinyl, with the initial laid-back​ saxophone riff and trumpet solo blown apart in a fireball of energy.

In 1981 Bowie returned to Australia leading From the Root to the Source, a band even more intent on proving all African American music, from spirituals to free jazz, was one. The first concert was so mind-blowing I went every night (and, incidentally, interviewed Bowie – my first music-journalism foray). The all-star band included two towering vocalists: soul diva Fontella​ Bass (Bowie's ex-wife) and thrilling gospel singer David Peaston​. A variation of this personnel recorded The Great Pretender under Bowie's name, an album containing some of the trumpeter's finest work – further proof that were there a correlation between artistry and fame, Bowie would be 10 times as renowned as that supreme technician, Wynton Marsalis​. The album reaches from the title track's classic soul to the goofy Howdy Doody Time and the desperately sad Rios Nigros​, underpinned by Phillip Wilson's brilliant drumming. Bowie's next, All The Magic!, was at least as good, continuing to interweave the diverse strands of African American music with beauty, clarity and humour. A soulful tribute to Louis Armstrong cohabited​ with the free-jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler's​ Ghosts and the rollicking R&B of Let the Good Times Roll. The masterpiece was Bernard Igher's​ Everything Must Change, with Peaston's​ singing exhausting what it is to be human and to feel.

The AEC's​ storming Full Force included Bowie's irrepressible tribute to Mingus​, Charlie M, and the next, Urban Bushman, a sizzling double live album recorded on the same tour that brought them to Australia, was followed by the beautiful The Third Decade. Who else combined larger-than-life musical personalities, rampant imagination, ritual, art music, African drumming, free improvisation and the entire gamut of jazz?

In 1993 Jarman retired to concentrate on Buddhism, and in 1999 Bowie died. The remaining three members assembled to record Tribute to Lester, which includes the exquisite improvisation He Speaks to Me Often in Dreams. Subsequently Jarman returned, Favors​ died, and then Jarman died just a month ago. But the band continues, now an institution. JOHN SHAND

ALTERNATIVE FOLK Rustin​ Man

DRIFT CODE (Domino)

★★★★☆

The one previous Rustin​ Man album, 2002's Out of Season, was a tremulous, haunted collaboration between the possessor of the project's name, former Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb, and Portishead​ vocalist Beth Gibbons. This long-in-the-making and remarkable follow-up is Webb's burden alone, and the immediate difference is the distinct character of his voice, which is wracked by age, but lifting into a higher register. The 57-year-old sounds his age in the best way: the wonder that courses through Brings Me Joy is tinged with hard won experience, while Judgment Train has a mantric​ menace that draws you in. At times Webb sounds like a seer, adrift in the cosmos, and that suits a record that summons distinctly English styles, such as the vintage jazz flourishes of Our Tomorrows or the psychedelic-spiked folk of Martian Garden. The songs never betray the years that have gone into them, reconstituting​ their distinct DNA from track to track without losing Webb's imprint. Atop it all is a mystical sustenance: amid the martial spiral of Vanishing Heart Webb declares, "It feels so good to be alive." CRAIG MATHIESON

BAROQUE FOLK-POP Beirut

GALLIPOLI (4AD/Remote Control)

★★★☆☆

If you want to reach Beirut, set your musical GPS for a point between Sufjan​ Stevens and Arcade Fire. Zach​ Condon, the 32-year-old behind the group, is not as mercurial as the former or as stadium-ready as the latter, but he shares their musical DNA. Formerly he used clanking Balkan rhythms and jaunty French musical accents to back his sweet-voiced ruminations on life and love. His go-to instruments – plinking​ ukulele and mournful trumpet – remain on his fifth album, although he continues to plane the edges from his earlier work. The title track – named after an Italian town, not the Turkish city we associate with Anzac Day – is typical of his approach here, featuring vamping​ Farfisa​ organ, tumbling trumpet arpeggios and Condon's sad-sack croon. On 2015's No No No he stripped back his trademark sound to basics, a move many critics tied to his divorce and hospitalisation due to exhaustion. It exposed the songs as not sturdy enough for the treatment he gave them. Gallipoli colours in more of the spaces, but ambling atmospherics outweigh soul-stirring dynamics, leaving a sepia-tinged melancholy at its heart. BARRY DIVOLA​

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