IT HARDLY SEEMS FAIR that John Gilbreath's Earshot Jazz organization, which regularly brings progressive, challenging music to Seattle, should have its festival opening week overshadowed by a booking at Jazz Alley, which typically sticks to the deepest pools of the mainstream. But in a cup-runneth-over situation for jazzheads, the Art Ensemble of Chicago will be here for two nights. Even Gilbreath himself says, "I regret I won't be able to see it, I'll be so damn busy."
Gilbreath brought AEC to town last year, but only in trio form; this week's performance will be the first chance in many years for Seattleites to hear Joseph Jarman in consort and combat with his fellow woodwind master Roscoe Mitchell. Two new CDsThe Meeting (Pi) and Tribute to Lester (ECM)give a preview of the difference Jarman makes, and the greatness the decades-old AEC still embody.
Stripped down to trio form on Tributewith Malachi Favors on bass, Famoudou Don Moye on drums, and everyone on about a hundred different percussion instrumentsthe band is still as versatile and evocative as ever. They travel vast distances of mood and sound in a few minutes, as on "Suite for Lester" (Bowie, the band's beloved trumpeter who died in 1999), or work insistently away at a single stitch for 13, as on "As Clear as the Sun," which features as stunning a stretch of prolonged circular breathing from Mitchell on alto as I have ever heard.
The Meeting feels somewhat more meandering, but it has Jarman's acerbic edge (despite his years of Buddhist studies and the wooden flute he's added). When he and Mitchell blaze a path together on the title cut, the exhilaration captures free jazz at its most cathartic. These musicians are inventing some of the most advanced stuff you'll hear, not with one bit of electronic processing or other shortcuts to futurism, but by reveling in a sound that's primal, raw, and deeply sophisticated. What part of "must-see" don't you understand?
The Art Ensemble of Chicago play Jazz Alley at 8 p.m. Tues., Oct. 28-Wed., Oct. 29. $23.50-$25.50. Chicago trumpeter Corey Wilkes will be joining them.