The Odyssey of Funk and Popular Music

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: Atlantic
ALBUM TITLE: Lester Bowie Brass Fantasy
PERFORMER: Lester Bowie, Joseph Gollehon, Ravi Best, Gerald Brazel (t), Bob Stewart (tba), Vincent Chancey (hn), Luis Bonilla, Joshua Roseman, Gary Valente (trb), Vinnie Johnson (d), Victor See Yuen (perc)
CATALOGUE NO: 3984-23026-2

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Lester Bowie has always played by his own rules. A trumpet player of narrow technical resources but unlimited emotional range, his style includes a vast array of sweet and sour phrases, glissandos, smears, raspberries and bronchial wheezes that somehow fit into the framework of his improvisations. In fact you only have to look back to Ellington brass players like ‘Cootie’ Williams or ‘Trick Sam’ Nanton to see how the idiosyncratic can be reimagined into a language of its own.

Bowie is best known for his work with Art Ensemble of Chicago, a collective that proposed jazz was a fluid, open-ended collection of mostly black musical idioms. In many ways the Brass Fantasy, formed in 1984, has extended this inclusive approach to repertoire but although it doesn’t indulge in free-jazz rhetoric it uses humour, irony and parody to make the point that the avant-garde can exist in sometimes incongruous, if not necessarily volatile, experimentation.

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One of the great recordings of 1980 jazz was its comically seductive version of ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’. Here the players make common cause with the likes of ‘Nessun dorma’, ‘The Birth of Blues’, ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina’ and ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’. Their ability to project such competing iconoclastic fantasies is a tribute to a conception rich in historical continuity while at the same time challenging our received notions of jazz’s margins and centre. Stuart Nicholson