The music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago tied together several threads of Afro-American music at the Museum of Natural History last night. Famoudou Don Moye wore the war paint and robes of tribal Africa as he slapped instinctual rhythms out of macrame-wrapped congas. A few feet away Lester Bowie stood in his white laboratory jacket and thin brown tie as he sculpted out tone poems with his silver trumpet.
The quintet's music ranged from the oldest, rowdiest ritualsim to the most modern minimalism. In between were hints of calypso, Dixieland, blues, beebop and free jazz. Rather than chop up this tradition into different eras, the ensemble unified it into two hour-long pieces of what they call "Great Black Musc." In their hands last night, it certainly warranted the first adjective.
Other than Bowie, the members played so many reed and percussion instruments that the ensemble functioned as a five-man jazz orchestra. As the tides of music shifted, Roscoe Mitchell put aside the echoing dissonance of his thick bass saxophone for the lyrical trills of his wand-thin soprano sax. Joseph Jarman exchanged his Dixieland clarinet for reverberating gongs and conch shell.
The group's all-out assault drove several unsuspecting listeners from the auditorium. But longtime followers responded enthusiastically to this group that has stayed together 10 years.Each year the Art Ensemble of Chicago returns to Washington, they seem to play better.