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I’m sure Blues Traveller was just fine but…

December 4, 2011

It’s been nearly 30 years since I, as an unsuspecting teen, picked up a copy of the jazz magazine Down Beat, and while thumbing through it stumbled across a most otherworldly group.

I have an appreciation for the theatrical, so I was curious. Three members of the quintet were wearing African garb and face paint, another had a long double goatee and was donning a lab coat, while the last member was dressed in everyday clothes.

This was my introduction to the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago, which had won the magazine’s award for top acoustic jazz group and jazz album for 1981. For a teen in a farming community in British Columbia simply staring at these guys on the page was mind-blowing. Hearing them even more so.

I actually didn’t start to “get” their music until I was into my 20s, at which point I could appreciate their spectrum covering traditional to free form jazz. With their collection of five-hundred or so instruments, they sounded like some kind of cacophony orchestra. Gongs and bike whistles would blast one minute and lead into some African-sounding saxophone melody or a trumpet solo that traversed the history of jazz in a few bars.

As I learned more about the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the late 1960s Windy City scene that spawned them, I found out the group didn’t play live all that often, despite their longevity.

So in 1997, just as I was planning to move from Vancouver, I found out the AEC was playing at the Bumbershoot arts fest in Seattle, so my friends Sean, Dan and Kate squeezed into my Tercel and over the border we went.

Let me be clear, I have never had any reason to be worried at the border, but I still hate crossings. When our border guard asked the reason for our trip, I said we were going to Bumbershoot.

“Who you going to see?” he asked without cracking a smile.

“We’re going to see a jazz group called the Art Ensemble of Chicago,” I said, hoping I didn’t have to explain the band further.

“No, you’re not,” he paused, then broke into a wide grin. “You’re going to see Blues Traveller.”

Part of me wanted to grin back, part of me felt like pissing my pants. Anyway, we arrived at Seattle Center a couple hours later, found the opera house and got seats in the centre section. While the others were having a smoke, I thought I was going to end up in fight with a guy over the seats. (He sat behind us and ended up leaving the show almost as soon as it began.)

At one point I saw my idol Bill Frisell wandering by, either looking for seats or people in his party. I hoped he’d park himself near us, but it didn’t happen.

After a fine opening set by Frisell’s frequent collaborator Wayne Horvitz and his 4+1 Ensemble, kind of electro-chamber jazz project, we waited anxiously for the main event.

We realized quickly they didn’t bring their vast collection of percussion instruments, as festival turnover times tend to encourage keeping things simple. The only other disappointment was that it wasn’t the full band. One of the saxophonists, Joseph Jarman, had already left the band to pursue martial arts and theatrical studies (He’s since rejoined.) However, the other reed player, Roscoe Mitchell, also wasn’t there, as he turned out to be sick. (Note: Dan and I did catch Roscoe and his solo group at Vancouver’s jazz fest a few years back.)

For the Seattle gig, the Art Ensemble of Chicago worked as a trio with the African-influenced (and adorned) rhythm section of Malachi Favors and Famoudou Don Moye, and on trumpet (and in lab coat) the incomparable Lester Bowie.

I’ll admit trumpet is not usually my favourite instrument. Even among brass, I prefer the emotional range of a trombone. However, to watch Lester blow his horn for an hour straight was one of the most amazing live musical experiences of my life. He’s a torch singer, a Kabuki performer, a carnival barker, a blues belter, a toreador, maybe even a mad scientist in that lab coat.

I don’t recall the ebb and flow of the set specifically, but the three never stopped once to take a rest. Malachi held down the bottom on his groaning bass, drummer Don Moye’s hands became kinetic energy personified and Lester handled all the melodies, that is when they weren’t breaking things down into looser, noisier experiments. They played for an hour until finally segueing into the bluesy swing of their signature closing piece, “Odwalla.”

I was spent emotionally when it was done, but euphoric at the same time. As Dan said to me recently in an online message, “I recall my feet not touching the floor as we exited the venue!”

There are certain performers or groups on the must-see list, and the AEC was definitely at or near the top of ours.

A few years later, Dan and Kate did go back down to Seattle to see the AEC. Again, the group was down to a trio, this time with Roscoe instead of Lester. They played a show in honour of Bowie who had died from liver cancer in 1999 at age 58.

Lester’s death hit me in a way that only a few others’ deaths have done (outside of my immediate family), maybe Kurt Vonnegut or Spalding Gray. It made me feel all the more grateful to have had that rare chance to see him blow trumpet as I’ve never seen anyone else blow it.

We didn’t end up catching anything else at Bumbershoot that day, and drove back to Vancouver after we had some dinner. Oh, and Blues Traveller? I’m sure they were just fine, but I wouldn’t have missed the Art Ensemble of Chicago for anything in the world that day and any other music after would’ve been a downer. I guess if Homeland Security doesn’t let me over the border now as a result, then so be it.

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From → Live music

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