The Runners-Up is a monthly column, which we first tried in 2013, wherein we will analyze an album that isn’t the consensus first choice or most canonical title by a given artist, but is one worthy of more attention than it’s received to date. The album we’ll look at this month is…the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s 1978 album, Kabalaba. (Get it from Amazon.)
Kabalaba is a live album, recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974, and released four years later on their own AECO label, during the period between the end of their short-lived Atlantic Records deal, which yielded two albums, the live Bap-Tizum and the studio recording Fanfare for the Warriors, and the beginning of their two-decade tenure with ECM. It serves as a kind of milestone marking the end of the brilliant first phase of their career, which began in mid ’60s Chicago. The presence of pianist and AACM co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams as a guest (also present on Fanfare…) ties it to their earliest beginnings.
The members of the Art Ensemble formed AECO (which stood for Art Ensemble of Chicago Operations) in the early ’70s, incorporating as a business in order to capitalize on the success they’d achieved following their tenure in Paris from 1969-71. That initial burst of activity had yielded over a dozen albums’ worth of material, including studio and live recordings and a collaboration with French vocalist Brigitte Fontaine, scattered across almost as many labels (BYG, Pathé, Decca, Freedom, America, Galloway, Saravah). AECO Records began as an outlet for solo projects by Ensemble members: its initial releases included Famoudou Don Moye‘s Sun Percussion Volume One, Joseph Jarman‘s Sunbound Volume One, and Malachi Favors‘ (billed as Brother Malachi Favors Magoustous) Natural & Spiritual. Kabalaba was the last release on the label for many years — albums didn’t begin to appear again until the 1990s.
The Art Ensemble didn’t just play “jazz concerts,” particularly not during this era of their existence. Their performances incorporated theater, poetry, and a strong visual sense (manifested in trumpeter Lester Bowie‘s lab coat and several other members’ face paint). The first 10 minutes of this album serve as a kind of overture and introduction of the dramatis personae. It begins with a swarm of high-pitched harmonies given the apt title “Kabalaba – Bees”; indeed, the reeds sound like bees at times, and like a crying baby at others. After three minutes or so, Abrams enters, playing haunted-house piano to bring the mood down and settle the audience into their seats. He’s surrounded by shimmering bells and chimes, and a soft flute begins to walk slowly beside him, eventually going solo. Malachi Favors takes his turn in the spotlight, with a bass solo that’s both booming and beautiful. Abrams returns to the keyboard, Famoudou Don Moye sits down behind the kit, and we get a minute and change of frantic piano trio action before the horns come in and we’re into Joseph Jarman‘s “Theme for SCO,” a piece they’d explore again on 1982’s double live album Urban Bushmen. This is the Art Ensemble in full, raucous free jazz mode, everyone pounding and rattling and squalling away, Jarman in particular; his tenor sax solo is a fierce, searing eruption. The album’s first side concludes with “Duo,” a short piece dominated by Roscoe Mitchell‘s bass sax.
The album’s second half is much more meditative and subdued than the first. It begins with “Sun Precondition One,” a percussion interlude — to call it a “drum solo” would be highly reductive. It seems like there must have been something else going on, too, as the audience bursts into applause here and there as if responding to something we can’t hear. That’s followed by a quiet passage of bowed bass and gentle reed murmurs, which leads to an extended, sputtering alto sax solo from Roscoe Mitchell which has all the hallmarks of his style: rapid leaps between disconnected phrases, deep rumbles, quacks and squawks, seemingly inhuman breath control, and a total disregard for listener enjoyment. Still, he gets applause. Bowie follows him, playing a more lyrical but still challenging solo that’s shadowed by some genuinely odd echoes, giving it an almost psychedelic feel. Eventually, he peters out, like air sagging out of a balloon, and the last thing we hear is a gong strike from Moye, itself cut off by tape edit.
Because it’s never been licensed to any of the Art Ensemble’s various labels, Kabalaba has always flown below the radar. It’s been reissued on CD, but you have to know about it to look for it. Well, now you know. For any fan of the Art Ensemble’s first era (1969-74), it’s a must-hear.