I was checking out what’s up with Dan over at soundslope (who very kindly lists The Middle Picture as one of his favorites of the year, with what is probably the most thoughtful review that album has received) and he writes he just finished working on the new AACM website. So I headed over there, and the site is really well done, clear and easy to navigate but a ton of content. And a great video section, including some incredible footage of Amina Claudine Myers playing Dirty No Gooders’ Blues, some vintage Art Ensemble, and a slightly bizarre clip of Bill Cosby talking about Lester Bowie. This inevitably led me over to youtube, to kill an hour hunting down more Lester performances, and I started musing about how totally great Lester really was. Which, inevitably, leads to a blog post!
Lester was probably the first “avant” trumpet player I started listening to, and honestly, I can’t remember how, when and where I first heard him. But I do remember the feeling. Growing up in Boston and getting into jazz in the late eighties and early nineties, the dominant trumpet aesthetic amongst music students was Berklee-ite, post-Wynton young lions; lots of guys playing wanna-be Woody Shaw patterns of augmented fourths (without a trace of Woody’s tone, intensity, or originality.) Hearing Lester was more than a breath of fresh air, it was like having Jackson Pollack splatter painting a hospital wall. Patterns are for saxophones…brass should be about blowing down the walls of Jericho, or sounding like a hippopotamus giving birth, or the aural equivalent of a Groucho Marx joke, or in Lester’s case, all of the above. He opened up a whole new world for me as player, a world of squeezes and shapes rather than scales and structures. I got to see him perform several times, usually with Brass Fantasy, though sadly, by the one chance I had to see him with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, he was already too sick to perform and didn’t make the gig. He died a few short months later, 8 November 1999.
All the usual adjectives used to describe his playing certainly apply: irrepressible, irreverent, joyful, fun. But unfortunately, his exquisite musicianship often gets overshadowed by his natural theatricality and joie-de-vie. Make no mistake, he was one of the truly great improvisers, a master of dynamics, timbre, and pacing. He could milk a long solo over a groove like nobody’s business, yet also knew when to place the perfect single note (or splat) in the midst of a minimalist adventure. For one of my favorite examples of the former, check out this track, The Burglar from his out-of-print 1991 album The Organizer (w/Amina Claudine Myers on organ and Famadou Don Moye on drums.) Lester made explicit the link between the practices of the so-called “avant-garde” and jazz’s earliest artists; he brought me into the world of Rex Stewart, Henry ‘Red’ Allen, and Louis Armstrong. (Speaking of Allen, I have been losing my shit over his 1957 World on a String album…one of the greatest trumpet albums I had never heard!)
For a while though, I pulled away from Lester, in favor of the linked paths he had introduced me too: the more extreme explorations of Leo Smith and Bill Dixon on one hand, and the old-school joys of Armstrong, Ellingtonian brass, and the like on the other. And I must admit, perhaps in the pretensions of youthful experimentalism I was ashamed of Lester’s embracing populism. But as I’ve (somewhat) matured, and newly appreciate the brilliance of The Great Pretender, be it the Platters or Lester’s ebullient cover version, I am diving back into Mr. Bowie’s world. I’ve been reexamining the Art Ensemble, particularly with the possibilities of collective ensembles high on my mind these days, and I’ve been digging into his discography as a leader. Anthony Braxton has told me that he and Lester used to play together in a quartet back in Chicago, how I wish that group was recorded! I can only imagine the yin/yang of those two together; in Lester’s words, that had some potential for some “serious fun!” (For another recorded example of Lester with a somewhat unlikely saxophonist, check out Jimmy Lyons’ masterpiece Other Afternoons.)
A few month ago, I was driving through Italy with my friends Lalo Lofoco and Mary Halvorson. In Lalo’s car, we found a compilation CD of Lester’s music from an Italian jazz magazine; incredible stuff from throughout his career. Few trumpet players give me such pure and visceral enjoyment; the long drive from Torino to Bologna flew by on the brassy wings of Bowie’s music. That night on a gig with bassist Antonio Borghini, I couldn’t resist revisiting an old tune of mine I hadn’t played for years dedicated to the master. And if you’re feeling inspired to pick up some Bowie recordings for yourself, why not at the AACM store? (Hoping and assuming the organization gets a cut from the Amazon partnership!) Put on the music, don your lab coat, and start swaying from side to side…