It was Lester Bowie, trumpeter with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, who suggested that the Black Artists’ Group (BAG) should head for Paris. In 1972 several members of BAG took his advice and flew to France for an extended stay. The following year a concert featuring saxophonist Oliver Lake, trumpeters Baikida Carroll and Floyd LeFlore, drummer Charles Bobo Shaw and trombonist Joseph Bowie (Lester’s younger brother) was recorded and subsequently issued as In Paris, Aries 1973, a strictly limited edition LP on the group’s own label.
Since the formation of Black Artists’ Group in 1968, the home of this multidisciplinary arts collective had been St Louis, Missouri, the city where the Bowie brothers had grown up. It was there that Lester Bowie had started to investigate the expanding horizons of jazz before moving, in 1966, to Chicago where he joined the recently established Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). His close friend Oliver Lake visited Bowie, attended AACM concerts and meetings and was inspired not only by their artistic vision and integrity but also by their efficient organisation. In Chicago musicians were making things happen for themselves, taking control of their own destinies and giving shape to their lives as creative artists.
In June 1969, the Art Ensemble of Chicago had taken their music to France. During the preceding decade Paris had established a reputation for audiences that were unusually well-informed and open-minded, receptive to the uncompromising music of black American innovators such as Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Sun Ra. The city that had nurtured not only Cubism and Surrealism, but also Jean-Luc Godard and contemporary cinema’s Nouvelle Vague was well prepared for the sonic collage forms and stylistic dislocations of the Art Ensemble. During that same month violinist Leroy Jenkins, trumpeter Leo Smith and saxophonist Anthony Braxton also arrived in Paris, three further emissaries from the AACM.
The adventure of collective improvisation resonated with the Parisian zeitgeist. Enthusiastic audiences attended their concerts and coverage in the media. In Paris, Aries 1973 offers an isolated and fascinating glimpse into that phase of the group’s existence. The album is dedicated to the memory of Kada Kayan, a bassist who had hoped to make the trip from St Louis to France but, tragically, had grown ill and died. His absence adds special poignancy to the sound of the bass when it appears on this recording, played by Baikida Carroll. Listeners keen to hear Kayan himself in the company of Lake, Bowie, Shaw, LeFlore and Carroll should seek out Red, Black and Green by the 10-piece Solidarity Unit, Inc. That album, recorded on 18th September 1970 and dedicated to Jimi Hendrix, who died on that day, features an earlier version of Shaw’s composition “Something to Play On.”
In Paris, Aries 1973 reveals BAG’s musical affinities with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Both groups preserved an independently minded approach to the notion of free jazz and a carefully filtered awareness of pan-African musical practices, while their creative interest in space, mobile structure, chance occurrences and simultaneity also suggests parallels with the concerns of leading experimental composers working at that time. These performances in Paris of Shaw’s “Something to Play On” and Lake’s “Re-Cre-A-Tion,” plus two collective compositions/improvisations, display the dedication to structural fluency and sensitivity to coloration that accompanied BAG’s unorthodox group dynamics and their unconventional instrumental combinations. In this case the musicians embrace congas, log drums, marimbas, woodblocks, cowbells and gongs. This is not a showcase for solos, but a shape-shifting and multi-centred statement of togetherness, quest and discovery. Removed from BAG’s original multidisciplinary context the music still exudes an exhilarating spirit of collaborative exploration and shared excitement.
- Julian Cowley