Wednesday, January 6, 1999

Avant Reunion

Posted By on Wed, Jan 6, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Odwalla began in a poem as a sort of mythical savior leading the "Sun People" from the gray haze. Then there was the triumphant "Odwalla," an Art Ensemble of Chicago concert closer with which they declared the haze dispersed and marched from the stage.

On the AEC's comeback recording, the group's first in eight years, "Odwalla" is transformed again, from a bonfire finale to a hearth; it is eerie, almost prayerful, tinged with sadness, and perhaps the center of gravity for Coming Home Jamaica, which ranges from patiently painted tonal landscapes to music to make your tail shake -- or your head spin.

There's "Grape Escape," which evokes an evolutionary chain from freebop to bebop to o-wop-lop-a-boo-bop to Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives. There's "Mama Wants You," which moves from cool whispers to the heat of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers -- including a quote from "Moanin'" if you didn't get the connection already. From the serene to the screamin', from Caribbean beats to no beats, the AEC covers the waterfront.

To be sure, Coming Home Jamaica can't match the sonic wallop or breadth of the early '70s Atlantic recording that introduced the poem (Fanfare of the Warriors) or the first recorded version of the tune (Bap-Tizum). Those were the major label coming out for the group and the movement they spearheaded, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which knotted jazz tradition and experimentation as never before and helped shape what's come since.

For the AEC, what's come since has included too many phases and trips to recount: hiatuses, comebacks, solo projects and collaborations. The absence of saxophonist Joseph Jarman marks the group's first personnel change in nearly 30 years, and the diminishment of one of the most glorious sounding horn sections in jazz. But like Odwalla, the AEC can still part the gray haze.

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