Pick of the Week #9
The Art Ensemble Of Chicago

(Fanfare For The Warriors, 1974)
By Beppe Colli
Jan. 28, 2021

What a fantastic experience it is, to listen to this album for no other reason than the sheer pleasure of it (no anniversaries, and none of those "commercial reasons" that usually go hand-in-hand with such anniversaries, those reasons of commerce becoming more and more urgent as the number of potential listeners dwindles with every passing year: tempus fugit).

This is an album that is dear to me for many reasons. If I'm not mistaken, this is the first "jazz" album proper that I bought. But the main reason is that it's an album on which I've often measured my "growth" as a listener, my understanding of serious musical topics concerning the actual making of music, and the many facets that pertain to its creation.

(The album was recorded in 1973 and released in 1974. I bought a US "import" copy in 1975. Though recent, the album was already sold as a "cut-out", but whether due to it being already "out of print", or an "overstock", I can't say. While not being terribly important, I believe that this particular piece of news enriches the background of this story.)

I'm really pleased I can say that listening to Fanfare For The Warriors all over again confirmed to me the high quality of the music featured on the album - which evoked no particular sense of "nostalgia" in me - and its being what I'd call an "archetype". So I feel totally at peace with myself when I say I regard this album as "required listening" (especially, but not exclusively) for those who don't know that much about "jazz". Not because it offers "all jazz". But because the featured music is quite varied, rich with different approaches to composing, quite skillfully performed, and presented in perfect recorded sound. (In fact, this is exactly the way the album was envisioned, as we'll see in a short while.)

"... but is it 'jazz'?"

This could appear as a strange question, especially so when asked about this album. But one has to consider there are many reasons this question could be asked, and for different goals. Different criteria apply, especially according to the identity and the specific role of the one who's asking, be them listeners, critics, journalists, concert promoters, or those bureaucrats who have to sign those checks for that Festival, and so on.

This is no idle chatter. How many times, while listening to music, one has asked oneself the question "... but is it rock?". Or "... but is it music?" (in recent times, mostly about rap, hip-hop, and techno, I guess).

Let's picture a "cross-examination" of three albums released in 1971, taking place at the time of their original release: Sticky Fingers, by the Rolling Stones; Master Of Reality, by Black Sabbath; and The Yes Album, by Yes. What would fans of Black Sabbath say, if attending "by mistake" a concert by Magma? Is it "music that never changes" really music? Should one call "music" something whose existence is governed by a "random" process that will make the same exact configuration appear only after 254 years have passed? (Not sure about the exact number, but you get the idea.) Should one call "music" something that one is not able to listen to (meaning, existing at frequencies that human beings can't hear)?

Putting the tag "Great Black Music" (with its corollary, "Ancient To The Future"), the Art Ensemble Of Chicago miraculously avoided the word "jazz". The intention obviously being that of highlighting the plurality of styles placed under the same umbrella (better not to ask too many questions about the umbrella, though), and of building a bridge between different eras. The unintentional consequence was to put the group outside the many wars that at the time one could only hope would cease, given time. And cease they did, but for complex reasons that will be briefly discussed below, they erupted elsewhere.

There were still pragmatic reasons to be solved. Where in the shop's bins one is supposed to place "album x"? How should one define the music appearing at Festival x? What to call the Govt.-backed grant given to a musician playing...? (Oops!)

As a "rock" listener of much experience - at least, that's the way I saw myself at the time - I considered "jazz" as being afflicted by two serious curses, which I regarded as permanent: no timbral variety, and a high degree of predictability. Now I obviously understand that as criticism goes, this isn't much - I can only say that I had stopped wearing short pants not too long before - but let's think for a minute about the line-up that for many listeners is still synonymous with "jazz": trumpet, saxophone, and "rhythm" (this was the wording, a long time ago), or "a jazz trio", featuring the piano. What about the performances? Theme, solo, solo, solo, solo, theme.

It goes without saying that in the period 1969-71 "rock" music gave a lot of space to saxophones, and there were albums released such as Uncle Meat by Frank Zappa, and Fourth by Soft Machine (their first album I bought, Third being a double, and so, "too expensive").

And after listening a certain number of times to Fanfare For The Warriors, what were my favourite tracks? Those penned by Roscoe Mitchell: Nonaah and Tnoona. Precisely those tracks about which one could hear people saying "... but this is not 'jazz'".

Here I have to warn listeners about a particular bias of mine: I immediately found myself liking the music by Roscoe Mitchell a whole lot. While - though I happened to buy about eighty of his albums in about fifteen years - I've always considered the music by Anthony Braxton as "somewhat a bit alien", "something to investigate" (maybe because it featured... too much jazz?). While Mitchell's music always sounded "natural" to me, though of course quite difficult.

Having left their music base, Chicago, after the release of the album titled Sound, where Roscoe Mitchell & friends started exploring different ways to build music, as an alternative to the "energy music" coming from New York which at the time was the prevalent blueprint for making music outside the beaten path, the Art Ensemble (of Chicago) emigrated to France, as soon did Anthony Braxton and other musicians whose names are quite well-known today. The group's decision to highlight the "ethnic-ritual" side of their music, their wearing masks, paint, and costumes, their explicit endorsement of an "African" cultural identity, all were of some importance for the group's success in France, as the high number of albums recorded by the the group at the time in that Country testify.

(It was only a few years after the fact that I understood that the bunch of LPs I had seen in the largest record shop in my town, all designed to be part of a series, were those released under the BYG-Actuel banner. And that the strange-looking guy I immediately decided had to be a "nutcase" was Daevid Allen, the album in question being Magick Brother. While looking at a picture I found online I recognized one album by the Art Ensemble Of Chicago I had seen in that shop at that time: Message To Our Folks.)

Audiences threw bricks and stones at Braxton & co. (Something similar had happened, at another place and time, to Ornette Coleman: beaten, his saxophone being badly damaged.) While the Art Ensemble Of Chicago became a symbol of what "now music" was. Which had Anthony Braxton thinking very deeply about those matters.

(What I say here about Anthony Braxton can be checked on the fine book written by Graham Lock titled Forces In Motion, which since the days of its original publication I've read quite a few times, and which I read again in the last couple of weeks.)

As a "rock expert" who didn't know the first thing about jazz I tried in vain to find a source that could work as a guide in my trying to understand music that I found inscrutable, and for whose understanding I lacked any points of entry. I noticed i liked Monk and Mingus, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, and not much else. I wondered who Jimmy Giuffre and Andrew Hill were. While I didn't like much Weather Report, Keith Jarrett, and Chick Corea.

What had me quite puzzled was the type of coverage given to jazz by the majority of the press I read, which was - I have to say - quite "on the left" of the political spectrum. The same being true of the many "free radio stations" that appeared at the (the facto) end of Italian State monopoly of all radio (and television) broadcasting. The music called "jazz" was often understood according to a "dress code" (the Gato Barbieri "disguise" was there for a reason); or, worse yet, as a projection of one's "personality" (I happened to read that Roscoe Mitchell urgently needed to take some medications).

As we perfectly know, this is not a problem specific to jazz - I remember both Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson hiding their deep knowledge of music, and the "political" side of things being the main point of interest when dealing with many artists, from Bob Marley to Patti Smith to (Tamil) M.I.A., who was triumphantly presented on the pages of the Village Voice. It's an attitude that makes it possible for many critics and journalists to hide their ignorance and their lack of understanding, with "personalities" and "real life tales" being discussed instead of music. Without batting an eyelid, those who had written about Captain Beefheart and Can soon became "instant experts" on Steve Lacy and his "thin bladder" (which was another name for his main instrument, the soprano sax, and not a diagnosis of incontinence).

The worst ones were those pieces about Misha Mengelberg and a lot of (so-called) "improvised music", be it Dutch or not. There were those who presented Mengelberg's quite complex background as the source of a process that could be compared to that of a child who, while awakening, starts improvising by producing sounds. (Sounds, OK. But is it music?)

I'm often told I should stop lamenting those old facts - "even your readers must have enough by now!". But what one shouldn't forget is that a large number of listeners, upon understanding they have been put on, but lacking autonomous criteria of critical judgment, simply stop believing any source, whatever the source. And so, they miss their chances to appreciate a lot of music that could enrich their lives. While at the same time abdicating to their (potential) role as an audience for those musicians whose music remains unheard (also, "unsold").

Sometimes it's musicians themselves that do their best to make things muddier. I've always found what written by Leo Smith (in the liner notes to an album by Anthony Braxton, as quoted by Graham Lock on p.10 of his book) about Braxton's titles, which for a long time were a source of heated discussion about listeners, to be quite amusing:

"Braxton's titles are primary mystical, and any advanced student of mysticism or metaphysical science can readily read the code and symbolism embedded in his titles."

Right. But what about the case of two "advanced students" proposing different interpretations, are we supposed to call somebody who sits higher in the "mystical hierarchy" to decide who's right and who's wrong?

There's a lot of good stuff featured on the albums recorded by the Art Ensemble Of Chicago in their "French period". Should I limit myself to just one title, I'd recommend People In Sorrow as required listening. Two sides that require a fair amount of concentration, a work that's not really difficult but that needs to be listened to when one finds oneself to be in the proper mood (it's not the kind of album one listens to while checking one's mail).

After leaving France, the group returned to the United States, where they made some recordings. Sometime later, after a live concert that was presented on an album - Bap-Tizum (1972) - Michael Cuscuna organized a three-day studio session. Every day the group recorded those seven pieces that would appear on the album, in the end choosing the best versions.

While the original version from 1974 of Fanfare For The Warriors features liner notes (and an excellent recorded sound, just like the album's first CD edition, which in the booklet has the writing "Digitally remastered by Stephen Innocenzi at Atlantic Studios"), the second digital edition (which was available both as a CD and an LP in the Jazzlore series) features some quite informative liner notes, written "after the fact" by Michael Cuscuna.

Cuscuna writes that on that specific occasion it was decided to feature those aspects of the group that were best presented in the studio, in all their various guises. It was also decided to add the colours and the high interpretative values offered by pianist Muhal Richard Abrams: the outcome was excellent (adding a piano to a pianoless group can be a very risky move). Fanfare For The Warriors was destined to remain the group's last studio album til the day ECM gave them a contract (Nice Guys, 1979).

First track Illistrum offers the by-now typical percussive-poetical side of the line-up, with a spoken-word text that uses the typical mnemonic methods of knowledge transmitted orally. Multi-coloured percussion, great "chiaroscuro" work by Abrams.

A solo piano performance opens Barnyard Scuffel Shuffel, like an "almost-Monk" reading, then the track explodes in an almost rock 'n' roll vein, with lively saxophones and trumpet, and a "funky"-sounding rhythm section.

Nonaah presents an angular theme, quite spiky (I've often thought that quite a few themes penned by Mitchell, when slowed-down and after a process of light "adaptation" could almost pass as having been written by Hugh Hopper), then a piano solo quoting the theme, excellent backing by double bass and drums (it took me a long time to notice this, the piano really steals one's attention), then the saxophone, and close.

Fanfare For The Warriors is a piece that - especially in its first part, where the saxophones come to the fore - reminds me of the "energy music" to which the group's music was an alternative. There's a very fine trumpet solo, while the piano - this is something one is bound to notice after a few listening sessions - kinda sounds like steel drums, with a fine timbral effect.

What's To Say is a light, joyous, moment, featuring both flute and piccolo, percussion, piano, 4' that are gone in a flash.

Tnoona is another piece penned by Mitchell. The trump "blows", like the wind, coupled with long held phrases performed by the saxophones, alternating between the high and the low register, something which is perfectly mirrored by a piano ostinato, played percussively at both ends of the keyboard. Then, a saxophone explosion, something resembling a march, that for me is the true "Fanfare For The Warriors".

In closing, the light, breezy, The Key, featuring vocals, ends the albums in a more relaxed way than expected.

Some time ago, I happened to read a fine interview with Henry Threadgill by US pianist Ethan Iverson (recorded for the BBC, the transcription is available on Iverson's webzine, Do The Math). The name Gunther Schuller is mentioned, and Iverson notices that for many jazz musicians, classical music is "off-limits".

"... I'm not jazz, though", says Threadgill. "That was a period."

In the course of the conversation, Threadgill remembers an episode that I found touching: having to write, at eighteen, a report about a concert of classical music, he found the doors closing, and no way to enter the theatre. A man of a certain age offered to guide him into the auditorium, which he appeared to know quite well. While looking for a seat, Threadgill noticed that the man was sitting at the piano: it was Arthur Rubinstein.

"I met Hindemith e Varèse" (...) "I listened to Berio, to many names in contemporary music. I listened to all that music, live. Schoenberg" (...) "So I listened to all that music while others practiced their 'fake books' and how to play like Coltrane. They were not at those concerts."

Many jazz players used to hide their awareness of classical music, while Braxton was crucified for mentioning Stockhausen and Cage instead of Africa.

Braxton discussed the problem (this is from p.92 of the Lock book): "Why is it so natural for Evan Parker, say, to have an appreciation of Coltrane but for me to have an appreciation of Stockhausen is somehow out of the natural order of human experience? I see it as racist."

There's a parallel formulation of the problem argued by Braxton (on p.114 of the Lock book), about "the reality of the sweating brow".

"What is interesting with this concept, however, is that 'the reality of the sweating brow' is not so much dependent on the actual music but instead on 'how' the actual 'doing' of the music looks."

But in my opinion, in so differently from what argued by Braxton, this is a problem that also pertains to white musicians. For a long time it was possible to read articles and reviews where Robert Fripp was an object of ridicule due to his playing on stage while sitting on a stool. For a long time the music "rich with sweat, very physical", by punk and new wave groups, was regarded as being "more authentic", when compared to the more "static-looking" music by many "Prog" groups. And this is not a point of view argued by critics alone, as the opinion of a great slice of the listening audience proves.

(I won't discuss the phenomenon of the devaluation of the "mental" sphere, compared to the "physical", that's been going on for a few decades now.)

Let's go back to "jazz". Like in any process of communication, problems concerning definitions abound. Would we call "a horse" an animal that's just like a horse, only as large as a medium-sized dog? Would we call "a dog" an animal whose appearance is like that of any other dog, only as large as a cow?

Back in those days when "jazz" was really "the popular music", for dancing, it's plausible that most problems of definition were "absorbed", so to speak, in the act of consuming. But while jazz became more and more complex, and with the appearing of rock 'n 'roll, jazz audiences dwindled; while at the end of the Sixties, with the birth of more complex forms of rock music, jazz lost those listeners from the university campuses that had kept it commercially alive. Jazz political act of radicalization in the Sixties didn't help, either (meaning: when it came to the number of listeners).

As an "art form", the greatness of jazz remained fully intact - with many newspapers reporting on it - even at the times of Free. But the fact that, upon opening his eyes while playing, Charlie Haden saw Leonard Bernstein a few inches away from his double bass, concentrated in listening to the music, did not entail that, in a short while, New Yorkers would flock to listen to the Ornette Coleman quartet.

While a lot of critics have always refused to apply the "jazz" tag to all the music that in their opinion was not "jazz" - remember the "anti-jazz" tag used when talking about the music of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy - I think it could be said that in time a curious fact happened: While in the past many musicians asked for their music to be considered as "jazz" - a notion that in their opinion had to become quite more "inclusive" - today many musicians ask for their music not to be labeled as "jazz", since the definition has become an obstacle in their search for grants given by "respectable" institutions, in such amounts that only can finance a high-cost work such an Opera. In so, mirroring the change in the way "difficult music" is founded today: from "the market" to the "cultural sphere".

A perfect example is the work of Anthony Davis, a pianist who in the 70s and 80s was among my favourite musicians, whose work is not accessible to me on record since the time he left... well, jazz, for opera. A career rich with satisfaction, the most recent episode being the Pulitzer prize he won just last year.

The son of a very respected Faculty member, Anthony Davis had very clear ideas at the very ripe age of 32. I've recently read again the fine interview by Joe Blum which appeared in the Issue Aug.'84 of US monthly magazine Keyboard. Here it is: Tom Bailey and the Thompson Twins on the cover; appearing in a tiny picture, Jeff Lorber.

"Today he is well on the way to becoming established as a classical composer: 'Really, I would rather not be referred to as a jazz musician. My feeling is that I'm creating essentially American classical music. People have to realize that American classical music comes from all kind of sources. It becomes a political question at some point: You can draw on the Hebrew folk tradition, the way Steve Reich does, and there's no question that his music is classical music, but when you draw on our folk tradition, it's another thing'".

I'm sure many musicians greeted with joy the article penned by Graham Bowley which appeared on Jan. 15, 2021 in the New York Times:

Title: Trump Tried To End Federal Arts Funding. Instead, It Grew.

Below: Each year, President Trump's proposed federal budget eliminated funding for The National Endowment for the Arts. But the agency survived, largely by relying on bipartisan support in Congress.

And who recently got a prize by the National Endowment for the Arts? Roscoe Mitchell, as the 2020 NEA Jazz Master (I found online a video of the interview by Jo Reed, and the interview transcription).

And what a surprise to notice on the cover of Fanfare For The Warriors the following writing, whose presence I had totally forgotten about: "The work on the compositions in this album made possible through a grant from The National Endowment For The Arts".

© Beppe Colli 2021

CloudsandClocks.net | Jan. 28, 2021