The Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEOC) may be the most exciting performance group in jazz today, and the four live sides of Urban Bushmen capture much of the band’s startling virtuosity and playful, controlled looseness. The ensemble’s concept of “Great Black Music — Ancient to the Future” has always offered a unique blend of musical styles and individual freedom, creating order out of chaos and vice versa. On Urban Bushmen, the entire AEOC hodgepodge is displayed — from percussive tribal chants and meditations to Latin and march tempos, sprawling free interactions and lowdown, carnal swing — as is the battery of more than seventy-five instruments the five men play. And individual brilliance is heard as well, particularly in the constant rhythmic tappings and herculean solos of drummer Famoudou Don Moye, which form the base for the band’s musical expansions. All that’s lacking is the visual grace and excitement of the band’s high jinks and costuming. Urban Bushmen is a fine album; it would make a great videodisc.
Miles Davis, who seems to have majored in live albums over the past dozen years, offers another two-record set, We Want Miles, culled from his return to live performing last summer. Davis’ trumpet playing remains a piercing, invigorating sound on the jazz scene, but unfortunately, last summer’s band failed to offer the support his trumpet musings need. As a result, We Want Miles requires a bit of listener editing to be enjoyed. Each of the album’s five tunes is a long exercise in tension building and release, during which Miles enters, stirs things up and then fades away while the rest of the sextet keeps the jazz-funk groove churning. Bassist Marcus Miller and drummer Al Foster form an energetic rhythmic foundation for Miles’ solo blurts but can do little to save the spotlight efforts of saxist Bill Evans (an indiscreet Wayne Shorter clone) and the clichéd rock wailings of guitarist Mike Stern. The nursery-rhyme singsong of “Jean Pierre” and the nonstop rush of “Fast Track” are the highlights here, and while the rest is relatively free of aimless noodling, there is little evidence that Miles had much of importance to contribute on those evenings.