Today’s jazz does have a reputation, to a great extent deserved, for being a bit too serious too much of the time. Yesterday, I was reminded of how wonderfully playful the great St. Louis and AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie could be–and he regularly was. Often donning a lab coat on stage, Bowie was not only a scientist investigating the roots and structure of jazz, but also a surgeon who delighted in taking a mischievous scalpel to the genre’s corpus. The genre could currently use someone who extends Bowie’s acumen for aural amusement of the anarchic variety.
On 1974’s Fast Last (listen to the whole delightful album above), several greatly varied warhorses find themselves operated on–sometimes resulting in what one might call anatomical rearrangement. Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” sounds not all that unhappy about that state of being. “Hello, Dolly!” would seem to be a great risk–how much more jubilant and radiant could one play it compared to Louis Armstrong, one of Bowie’s idols? Turns out if you slap a warhorse on the right flank it might have more get-up-and-go than any listener would have a right to expect. “F-Troop Rides Again”? Well, maybe not–if you think about the subject matter of the associated television series, you can hear Bowie and drummer Bobo Shaw roll the patient out of the hospital and onto a minefield. Besides Shaw, Bowie is abetted on this recording by Lincoln University products (that’s complicated, kind of) Julius Hemphill on alto and John Hicks on piano, as well as his brother and Black Artist Group stalwart (with Shaw) Joseph on trombone. Do not try to read or iron or something like that while this record’s on–it demands, and deserves, your full attention, and you will laugh as you’re surprised by its sounds.
Another great album that will remind the listener how much a sense of humor can add to her enjoyment of a jazz performance is Bowie’s 1975 Rope-a-Dope, with brother Joe and Shaw back on the scene along with Lester’s fellow Art Ensemble of Chicago mates Malachi Favors (bass) and Don Moye (percussion). Their group’s assault / embrace of “St. Louis Blues” is worth the price of admission. By the way, both of these albums are officially out of print but can be picked up as a twofer used as American Gumbo. I enjoyed my listening experience so much I picked up the only available copy on Discogs in between my last surge of keyboard pecks.