Here’s the thing. Lester Bowie was a trumpet revolutionary. Whether with the Art Ensemble of Chicago or in his solo work he blazed a trail that – uniquely – looked backwards as well as forwards. Back to Bubber Miley and the Cotton Club and into the future of jazz in the 21st century.
So where can you hear this? Try the recently re-released The Great Pretender on ECM and, rather than the title track (itself a powerful deconstruction of the Platters classic), go straight to Rios Negros. Heard once, my guess is you’ll want to play it again immediately – and perhaps then, like me, you’ll want it play it again – and again – for the rest of your life.
I think I’ve only just worked out why this is. In just over seven minutes the trumpeter takes a first solo that tears the history of jazz apart. Then he creates a second coda solo that stretches out all the components of the first one and relocates them in back in the tradition – but in reverse order. The result is that we hear the history of jazz trumpet backwards so the track ends with the ghost of those early pioneers filtered through Bowie’s slurs and smears, crackles and blares. Bowie was a southerner born in St Louis, and right from the start his sound looked to jazz history and a range of other influences. Early in his career he played with blues and R and B artists including Little Milton and Rufus Thomas and in 1977 he recorded No Agreement with Fela Anikulapo Kuti. He led his Brass Fantasy for over a decade and the Art Ensemble of Chicago for thirty years. The ARC logo (shaped as a pyramid) featured the strapline Ancient to the Future – it could have been Bowie’s own musical motto.
Throughout The Great Pretender, Bowie is backed by the most sympathetic band he ever had. The late Phillip Wilson on drums is perfect and Donald Smith’s solo on Rios Negros is a delight. Hamiett Bluett provides some lovely bottom end baritone and Fred Williams is a wonderfully supportive bass player.
Rios Negros is very approachable. It’s not complex, it’s all done over a rocking latin shuffle and it’s as accessible as anyone could wish for. Play it blind and any listener who doesn’t know will say “Who’s that?!” Listen and you’ll find out about this history of jazz in just seven minutes.
Footnote: Wilson was an early member of the Art Ensemble but he was tragically murdered in New York at 50. There’s not much of his music in print these days. Donald Smith is the younger brother of Lonnie Liston Smith and you can hear him on piano on the Soul Jazz compilation Soul Jazz Loves Strata East (Dance of the Little Children) and on flute on his brother’s Expansions CD.