Morris’ day job often becomes his night job as well. As a well-seasoned stage technician, he’s regularly up and out of this home before his neighbors have begun brewing their coffee (he doesn’t drink coffee. He’s a tea man) and in by that same time the next morning. He might be rigging lights for a dance troupe or assisting in building the set for the annual Chicago Jazz Festival on Grant Park held in late August. After (and between) work, he shares his thoughts, criticisms and illuminations on jazz with the readers of The Jazz Institute of Chicago’s JazzGram and The Sutherland Community Arts Initiative’s Creativity Magazine, among other literary outlets. He’s now lending his pen to the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s operational arm, The Art Ensemble of Chicago Operations, Inc. The almost 40-year old estimable ensemble has self-released Fundamental Destiny: Live at the Frankfurt, Germany Jazz Festival with Don Pullen on their AECO Records, to which Morris has written the publicity one-sheet that accompanies it to radio stations worldwide. The AECO came into existence in 1978, where there and then the Ensemble claimed ownership of their work.
The early stage appearances of The Art Ensemble of Chicago - whose permanent members by 1970 were saxophonists Shaku Joseph Jarman (tenor ) and Roscoe Mitchell (alto and tenor), trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut and percussionist Famoudou Don Moye - were aural and oral psychedelics; those nubile dancers, the ensemble’s exotic garb, those "little instruments". Their performances were ritualistic as well as reminiscent and futuristic, commingled with elements from American jazz, African music and European art music. The loss of two members -Bowie in 1999 and Favors Maghostut in 2004 - has not extinguished the light that guides them towards exploring "the full range of the Black musical aesthetic."
Recorded in 1991, Fundamental Destiny: Live at the Frankfurt, Germany Jazz Festival with Don Pullen is another excavated gem from their many live shows (Moye is principally responsible for doing this.) Its four tunes give listeners a general range of where the Ensemble can go with profuse joy and withering despair. "People In Sorrow", first recorded on their 1969 Nessa Records release of the same name, is almost twenty minutes of drama, pain and disillusionment. Bowie, Mitchell and Jarman stir these emotions within themselves and propel them through their instruments. Pianist Pullen, aiming lightning bolts from his fingers at the keys, draws out these demoniac sounds from the players like poison from a wound. Freed from their sorrow, the ensemble saunters on "Song for Atala". Mitchell sounds most buoyant on tenor saxophone, wrenching notes in and out of tune and timbre. Lester Bowie, ever the wide-eyed optimist, unfolds a warm and open invitation to what awaits a dreamer in this world. "Fundamental Destiny" is a bopper, with mighty smacks on every percussive surface by Moye. As he pushes a hard backbeat, Favors Maghostut regulates a steady pulse. Pullen is the unsteady one, hell-bent on unseating both. It’s an exhilarating romp. "Odwalla/The Theme" is their three-and-a-half minute exit tune, MC’d by Jarman.
The wonder of The Art Ensemble of Chicago is that they’ve held up, held out and held on, decade after decade, piece after piece. But they reach for a higher aesthetic than just having their music shellacked (or to use a contemporary term, burned) into history. It’s their adage of "Great Black Music: Ancient To the Future" that steers the course to continued exploration of black consciousness and unconsciousness.
I recently spoke with Mr. Morris about his fundamental destiny with the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
JazzReview: What is your current involvement with the Art Ensemble of Chicago?
Morris: I work with Famoudou Moye, the drummer and percussionist, in archiving some of the material about the band. I’ve interviewed him a couple of times and I’ve reviewed some of their records for different publications. Just recently, on this last record that I helped produce, I also wrote the press release for it.
JazzReview: Do you know why they had Don Pullen on Fundamental Destiny?
Morris: All along, apparently, whenever the idea of a pianist came up to complement the band, Don Pullen had been the name of choice, probably based on the fact that he had had a long standing relationship with Moye, going back to 1978 when they had done a duet record, Milano Strut. In fact, Moye had wanted Pullen to be the pianist for one of his first projects outside of the AEC, the Leaders Band, but because of previous commitments, Pullen couldn't perform with them, so they first got Hilton Ruiz, interestingly enough, and then Kirk Lightsey, who became the permanent pianist in the group. Pullen spent a lot of time in Europe and he was probably around when the AEC knew they were going to have the date in Frankfurt and he agreed to be on it.
JazzReview: When did you begin listening to their music and attending their concerts?
Morris: I’d have to say in the mid-‘70’s.... ’76.’77. I would go see their concerts first before they started making records because then they’d started releasing their records individually on Delmark Records (in Chicago), which was really the first label that they ever worked with. They released Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound and they released the record by [pianist] Muhal Richard Abrams [one of the founding members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)] who was part of the Art Ensemble. He was the piano player for them for a minute. But they were always principally a quintet, a woodwind quintet. And they’ve only recently.... .well, they’ve only had piano players on special occasions - sister Amina [Claudine Myers] and then they’ve had on this latest release Don Pullen and that was in the early ‘90’s, and they’ve done work with Cecil Taylor, but I don’t know if they’ve released that one over here. It was released in Europe.
JazzReview: [NOTE: Previous to their debut recording with Delmark Records, the Art Ensemble of Chicago had recorded for other labels, including Nessa and BYG.] Would you say that Delmark gave them the best publicity and marketing [deal]?
Morris: Yeah, around here they had Delmark, they had a record release with DIW out of Japan, they, of course, had been on ECM... Now Famoudou does work with Itinera out of Italy - www.itineramusica.it. Then they call [the releases] Pomigliano Jazz because they do these live recordings at [the Pomigliano Jazz Festival]. I found all of that out through my interviews with Famoudou. They’ll do these special projects during the Festival in Italy and Itinera is the label that they record for. It’s a co-production with AECO. Hm-mm.
JazzReview: What has evolved in their stage presence since you started watching them?
Morris: Well, they used to have more dancers and there used to be more media involved and they used to have artwork on stage and everything and now it’s just basically the music. They’ll wear different outfits. Like, y’know, the late Lester Bowie would wear the lab coat all the time, and that got to be his thing. Roscoe Mitchell would always wear some sort of suit, but it would be an "out" suit. It would be a suit that you wouldn’t see a whole lot of people wearing [laugh]. Maybe something like what [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman might wear. And the other musicians would wear traditional wear - always. And that hasn’t evolved. That’ the way it came out. Traditional [tribal] face paint, straw hats with some head dresses....
JazzReview: Do you hear a difference in their music since they’ve moved away from the [stage theatrics]?
Morris: Not really because they’ve always played in the style that suited them at the time. You would think automatically that the first thing that they’re gonna do is play "out" music, all the time. And they don’t do that. They’ll play free-form some of the time, but they’ll turn around and play some blues, straight-up blues like on that album Chicago Style Blues that they put out in the late ‘70’s or early ‘80’s. It’s a double record set of just blues stuff. Young sister Amina, Chicago Bold the harmonica player, Herb Walker the guitar player.... When Lester would do Brass Fantasty [one of the groups that he led], they would sound more like a New Orleans band than anything else. Or the Art Ensemble can adopt that [style]; they’ll just play that. They’ll just start playing like a New Orleans-styled theme.... zydeco, y’know. Rarely do they play straight-up rock or anything, though Famoudou can get into some funky beats, more R&B than anything. They’ve always had the same basic style of music. Even with the theatrics gone like that they’ll come from anywhere. Their concerts can be any sort of feeling, even a traditional sort of quintet sound, as surprising as that might be.
JazzReview: Through the years, how have you come to know the individual members?
Morris: I first would hang out with Joseph Jarman, believe it or not, because he knew my ex-wife’s father. So then I started hanging out with him because.... he knew that I was interested in music. I’d go over to his house and listen to his records. Then I got to know Famoudou completely differently. The way I started hanging out with him - all of this is in the early ‘70’s - he was at the Lake Meadow Shopping Center, one of the first big, black-owned cooperative shopping centers on the South Side at 33rd and Martin Luther King Dr. At that time, I was part of the Kuumba Workshops, which is an artist/theater group. So, I was in there in the band playing congas and stuff. I would see him playing music over at the Lake Meadows Arts Fair. So, I went over to him and asked him about if he would give me drum and conga lessons because I was in the Kuumba Band. That’s how I got to know and hang out with him. He was giving me conga drum lessons. He showed me a lot of shit. Sometimes, I’d be at their [the Art Ensemble] show recording their stuff and I’d give them the tape because I had a nice cassette recorder at that point... One of my earliest tapes was of The Sun Drummers. Famoudou was a part of that (now named The Sun Percussion Summit.) I recorded them outside in the park and during Malcolm X Day and things like that. Roscoe Mitchell.... I’d just see around at concerts and he’d talk to me just like he would talk to everybody. Everyone wanted to talk to Roscoe because he’s such a great musician. And Malachi was such a friendly person. Anybody could talk to Malachi. They were one of the first groups formed out of the AACM. Hm-mm.
Y’see, they’re all individuals. They all have their own scene around Hyde Park - Joseph, Roscoe, Famoudou. You’d see Malachi walking around, buying groceries. I didn’t really have a close relationship with Lester. Lester stayed to himself. But I did with the other four. I saw them more. Lester would always be out of town. He got married early on to [vocalist] Fontella Bass. She came and sang with them on one of their first albums - Les Stances A Sophie - a soundtrack for a film on Nessa Records out of France.
JazzReview: Have you ever worked backstage at their concerts?
Morris: No, I’ve just been at a lot of their concerts. Rarely had they been at a place working at my job as a union stage hand and I would have to set them up.
JazzReview: In your opinion, what is their relevance in jazz today? Two of their members are deceased and currently they’re using guest artists.
Morris: The fact that they were some of the first free-form players who were recognized outside of New York City and that whole clique [of] Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Albert Alyer.... there was a New York, free-form thing going - I think they started in the late ‘50’s -well, the AE really picked up the gauntlet and carried it on as far as free-form playing, and then the fact that they had formed black cooperatives.... that would advance their music artistically and economically.... and it was all outside of the auspices of New York or any of the regular record labels where people would end up coming to them. So their relevance is that they’ve managed to keep that sound and their freedom and independence. People around the world love to play with The Art Ensemble.
MR. MORRIS’ FUNDAMENTAL DESTINY WITH THE ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO