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It’s a well-worn cliché that many jazz legends never fit in. But even among the post-Coltrane “fuck chords” crowd, the avant and altogether legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago has always been an anomaly. First and foremost among nonconformities: the group’s configuration. Though both saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and trumpeter Lester Bowie recorded mid- to late-’60s records that were Art Ensemble in all but name, the horn men soon changed their tune. For Art Ensemble’s official 1969 debut, People in Sorrow, they opted instead for the Modern Jazz Quartet’s infrequently employed jazz-outfit model: stable lineup and minimal ego, with no names above the title.

And though that album sounded nothing like the urbane third stream of John Lewis & Co., it didn’t sound much like the period’s reigning free jazz, either. For Mitchell and Bowie—along with saxophonist Joseph Jarman, bassist Malachi Favors, and drummer Famoudou Don Moye—”free jazz” meant “free to play whatever.” (Vide their motto: “Great Black Music, From the Ancient to the Future.”) The group initially erred on the side of spacious, pointillistic playing, employing a barrage of “little instruments” in nonvirtuosic ways, but throughout the years it has also touched on jukebox bop, Midwest blues, French pop, roots reggae, punk rock, and more.

Of course, singularity doesn’t necessarily equal quality. For every Art Ensemble hit, such as “Theme de Yoyo,” a 1970 avant-funk workout recorded with singer Fontella Bass, there have been plenty of misses along the lines of Thelonious Sphere Monk: Dreaming of the Masters Series, Vol. 2, the group’s all-but-inaccessible collaboration with pianist Cecil Taylor. What keeps me coming back to the group even through the low points is tough to pin down. At first, it’s tempting to focus on Art Ensemble’s collective sense of humor: Though it doesn’t stoop to comedy jazz, its members have definitely clowned around—especially Bowie. One of my favorite band moments is the trumpeter’s impersonation of an interviewer on the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble’s 1968 album, Congliptious: “Excuse me, uh, Mr. Bowie, I’m, uh, Dave Flexingbergstein of, uh, Jism magazine.” But maybe it’s more accurate to say that Art Ensemble’s compositions and improvisations have always sidestepped the anger and solemnity of traditional free jazz, opting instead for an all-too-rare spirit of playfulness.

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And that’s why the new Tribute to Lester is uncharacteristic. Recorded in September 2001 but released only last month, Tribute is Art Ensemble’s first studio effort since Bowie died in 1999 and only its second since Jarman left to become a Buddhist monk. As might be expected from the title, it’s an elegiac affair. The solo instance of fierce and haphazard playing, “As Clear as the Sun,” happens 30 minutes into the hourlong disc—otherwise, the trio blows and plucks and taps as if they were in church. The opening piece, the percussive “Sangaredi,” which first showed up on 1987’s Ancient to the Future, is absolutely precise and pristine—nothing like Art Ensemble’s ramshackle, drum-kit-falling-down-the-stairs exercises of old. “Tutankhamun,” a Favors solo turn from Congliptious, gets fleshed out into a slow R&B groove that sees Mitchell splitting time between deliberate bass-sax riffing and a measured, almost machinelike soprano solo. And “Zero/Alternate Line”—half of which is a Bowie piece from 1984’s The Third Decade —is the most conservative of all. Excepting a squeak here and a wavering pitch there, this swing-beat-and-walking-bass bop track sounds just like the Ken Burns- and-Starbucks vision of jazz.

In other words, Tribute to Lester is the least Bowie-like Art Ensemble disc. That quality doesn’t necessarily make it a bad record; in fact, it might be Art Ensemble’s most unified statement yet. But in paying their respects to Bowie, Mitchell, Favors, and Moye sound as if they’ve lost their bearings as Art Ensemble members. In March 2000, Mitchell told Down Beat’s John Corbett that they’d “just keep on doing the same thing” despite Bowie’s death. Of course, Bowie would approve, and yes, a trio incarnation is preferable to no Art Ensemble at all. But without its joyful irreverence, the group hardly seems like something special.

That’s why the more recent The Meeting, which documents Jarman’s return to the band, feels like a homecoming in more ways than one. The album is certainly less consistent than Tribute, with the nearly 20-minute “It’s a Sign of the Times” standing out as particularly unsuccessful—an inert mess of pitter-patter, gong-strikes, and breathy solos. But The Meeting’s few valleys lie barely noticed in the shadow of cloud-poking peaks such as Jarman’s “Hail We Now Sing Joy,” the infectious opening track that frames his and Mitchell’s ecstatic solos with luminous Sun Ra-style singing: “Hail we now sing joy/For the mighty dharma king/For the one who shows the way to the spirit of love we share.” The tune still lacks Bowie’s beautiful spit-take trumpet blasts, but at least it demonstrates that his survivors have taken off the widower’s weeds and discovered fun again.

In fact, The Meeting’s got exuberance to burn. Mitchell’s “Tech Ritter and the Megabytes” turns Morse-code riffs and a nonstandard time signature into rock-solid—and all but crunky—funk. The title track details a delirious sax tussle between Mitchell and Jarman that amazingly never descends into nerve-grating noise. And though the percussion and flute piece “Amin Bidness” is contemplative, it’s way too bright and sloppy and spontaneous and earthy to ever fade into ambience.

That’s exactly how I like my Art Ensemble. From this side of The Meeting, Tribute to Lester appears to have been a politely mournful digression: too transparent in its references, too limited by the structures of sax-based free jazz, and simply too easy to tune out. The newer disc returns Art Ensemble to its classic pluralism, never alighting anywhere for long and not fitting in anywhere—except within the Art Ensemble universe. It’s unreasonable to expect the group to ignore pain and loss. But it’s not unreasonable to hope it will never cut out the piss and vinegar. Even after Bowie’s death, what becomes this legend most is, and shall always be, play—sheer joyful play. CP