The Art Ensemble and CEF*

I’ve been listening to the great recording the Art Ensemble of Chicago made at Mandel Hall in 1972 on their triumphant return from Europe. [The enthusiastic audience on the recording belies Ken Burns’ ominous documentary narration: “they were popular… mainly among students… in France…” fade to image of jazz dying…]

The band goes so many places. There are no breaks in the flow–it’s a 76 minute uninterrupted tour de force. Sometimes it’s crazy and circusy, sometimes it’s lyrical, sometimes groovy, sometimes folky, sometimes spacy. It has a depth of emotional and expressive range that is clearly well thought out and yet in the moment there is a freedom at work and a sense that anything could happen. It quite frequently does.

I love this music. It always makes me smile. And in some ways it makes me rue how rarely this kind of extended improvisation happens these days. Things are different now, a different flow is in the air.

Even despite that–we wouldn’t be where we are now without this music. This was not a pose, it was real, lived experience, the kind from which great music is made. I remember as a young musician being inspired by music like this and taking the challenge of playing nonstop with a minimal road map for hours at a time. I recommend it. It might shed some light on the old question: How did they do that?

The more commonly asked question is Why did they do that? To escape the traps and fetters of day to day living and common practice. To be free, but to be free in context. To create the very parameters and platform of one’s freedom. And I’m sure much more.

That experience reverberates in a lot of the music on the scene today. Except that it is also refracted through other processes. Varying amounts of freedom go into the forms people use, and the freedom can be used like any other element, for example, in the way cyclical chord structures (or song forms) or ostinati work.

Yes, in a way that’s no different than the sorts of structures used in much music back in the day. In the words of Roy Eldridge, “There’s nothing new under the sun (well, except maybe the internet).”**

But my feeling is that without those trips to the outer atmosphere of form, feeling and structure we wouldn’t have the perception that we have of the extremes, and they would not be available to a 21st century composer. And maybe music would not be as rich and multifarious as it is.

* CEF = crazy experimental freedom, the infelicitous phrase used here and picked up by mwanji a few weeks ago. An oversimplification for “wild music.” Whether completely free, completely experimental, completely crazy, or not. Wild in its unfettered, feral, ferocious, fulgurant sense.

** I added the bit about the internet.