The Art Ensemble of Chicago is not the kind of group many jazz fans would peg as "traditionalist." Boasting an instrumental battery ranging from conch shells, bike horns, frying pans and tin cans to more mundane appliances like saxophones, trumpets and percussion, the Art Ensemble looks less like a jazz band than an eccentric traveling music store. Nor does it help that its performances are equally eclectic, eagerly wandering through bop, funk, free-form, gospel, African or any other style that might tickle the group's collective fancy.
But then, who said tradition had to be neatly categorical, a tidy pigeonhole for the past? In jazz, particularly, what passes for tradition is often little more than unrepentent conservatism. Living in the past is beside the point; the trick, as the Art Ensemble of Chicago understands it, is making the past live in the present.
It's tempting to take "The Third Decade" (ECM/Warner Bros. 25014-1) as the Art Ensemble's attempt to make its own past live up to the present. It is, to a certain extent, an update of the "Great Black Music" recording the group cut in 1969 for BYG. But where those albums were brashly unconventional, applying post-Ornette Coleman disrespect to icons of jazz's musical heritage, this album creates its music within a historical context that's more self-aware than self-conscious. If that costs the group some of its old parodic edge, it pays off with performances that make their point with elegant respect.
Not that the Art Ensemble makes any big show of it, of course. "Funky AECO," for instance, seems just that at first hearing -- a simple, raucous funk routine propelled by four-square bass and drums and spiked with the usual assortment of sound effects. Listen deeper than the backbeat, though, and it soon becomes clear that what's going on around that pulse is as rhythmically complex and harmonically serpentine as anything in the group's free-jazz segments. Yet the band's ability to maintain the beat while pushing the music to its limits is also a sly wink at jazz's past, to the days when the musical invention of a jazz band, be it Armstrong's, Ellington's or Basie's, never kept anybody off the dance floor.
Indeed it's the focus of the Art Ensemble's collective improvisations that drive this record, from the elegiac evolution of "Prayer for Jimbo Kwesi" to the channeled melodicism of "Walking in the Moonlight." Things get a bit overambitious in the title cut, which displays the group's adeptness at African percussion but falters some in its transition to free jazz. It's not hard to miss the outrageous humor that rippled through other albums. But these are minor complaints in light of just how much "The Third Decade" does right, especially in demonstrating that jazz history isn't a series of textbook abstractions, but a living, growing force in the players and their music.
Nor are the members of the Art Ensemble, who will be bringing their instrumental array and sense of history to the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on March 27, alone in this process. Recent albums by both Jack DeJohnette and David Murray make similar connections with jazz's past.
DeJohnette's "Album Album" (ECM/Warner Bros. 25010-1), in fact, makes an even clearer case for a musician's sense of personal history, conveying bits of the band leader's story in a way that suggests the musical equivalent of a photo album (hence the title).
As with any family photo album, there are some surprisingly revealing images presented here. "Ahmad the Terrible," for instance, is a wry, boppish number that evokes vintage Art Blakey through its persistent drive, yet it isn't DeJohnette's drumming that stands out so much as his cleanly voiced piano playing. Similarly, the hymnlike treatment given "Monk's Mood" finds DeJohnette's synthesizer blending so naturally with the saxophones that the group could almost pass for a wind choir.
Overall, though, it's the rhythm numbers that reel the listener in. From the second line funk of "New Orleans Strut" to the kaleidoscopic calypso of "Festival" to the freewheeling time zones in "Third World Anthem," DeJohnette and company navigate rhythmic crosscurrents with ease, pacing the performance to suit the music, not its players. It doesn't hurt that DeJohnette, an intensely melodic drummer, is perfectly matched by the rock solid bass playing of Rufus Reid, but the communal enthusiasm of saxophonist John Purcell, David Murray and Howard Johnson is what ultimately sparks the album, matching spry bursts of bop and growling gut-bucket blues with idiomatic ease.
Murray, in fact, generally plays better on "Album Album" than he does on his own "Morning Song" (Black Saint BSR 0075). It isn't a matter of better sidemen, either, for Murray connects as well with drummer Ed Blackwell on "Duet" as he ever does with DeJohnette. Rather, the problem is that Murray, instead of celebrating the past, is still trying to come to terms with it.
That doesn't prevent "Morning Song" from being a superb album anyway, one worth hearing for John Hicks' piano alone. But though David Murray is on the right course, this album shows that he hasn't reached his destination just yet.