“All’s fair in love and war—and music is both. So use anything, as long as it works,” Lester Bowie.
Lester Bowie (1941-1999) was a trumpeter, clown, advocate of the New, secret traditionalist, prankster, “the most bourgeois of underminers” (Gary Giddins). If you’ve never heard him, you’re in need of him. Here’s a list of some wonderful Bowie performances, from his youth in the Sixties to post-Black Tie White Noise.
“Jazz Death?,” Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, Congliptious, 1968. In response to an “Isn’t jazz, as we know it, dead yet?” query by a journalist from Jism magazine, Bowie offers a seven-minute-plus a capella trumpet solo, beginning with a few flights of the bumblebee and descending into a series of raspberries and squawks, scales and reveilles, farts and giggles. “That depends on what you know,” was Bowie’s response, after all.
“A Jackson in Your House,” Art Ensemble of Chicago, A Jackson In Your House, 1969. The jazz equivalent of the Firesign Theatre. Four lunatics offer a running survey of whatever music comes into their minds: New Orleans stomp, Hawaiian blues, celestial music from Aldebaran, a slurred greeting from a high Porky Pig.
“Theme de Yoyo,” Art Ensemble of Chicago, Les Stances de Sophie, 1970. One of the masterpieces of postwar jazz, with a bassline that sounds as though Malachi Favors is thrumming a set of steel cables, with Don Moye seemingly pounding an anvil and a saucy vocal by Fontella Bass in service of a lyric that should be in Modern American Poetry anthologies (“your fanny’s like two sperm whales floating down the Seine!”). A vein of unstoppable funk, with occasional vertiginous eruptions of trumpet and sax.
“Fast Last/C,” Lester Bowie, Fast Last!, 1974. Allied with the master saxophonist Julius Hemphill, Bowie leads his quintet through a maelstrom.
“3 in 1,” Lester Bowie, The 5th Power, 1978. A trio (Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors and drummer Philip Wilson). Featuring Bowie’s uncanny imitation of a speeding car’s engine (starting around 7:00), including gear shifts.
“New York Is Full of Lonely People,” Art Ensemble, Urban Bushmen, 1980. Bowie as melancholic, though he’s soon hounded by his percussionists until he finally cracks a smile.
“The Great Pretender,” Lester Bowie, The Great Pretender, 1981. Marcello Carlin’s essay on this song, one of the most astonishing, generous and funny Bowie performances, says it all. “[Bowie signs] off with “I’m here, baby! I’m HEEEERRRRE! I’ve arrIIIIIIved!” and ghostly chuckles which exactly parallel those of Vincent Price on the original “Thriller.” He knew how to prowl around pop, all right.”
Complete concert, (pts 1, 2, 3, 4), Art Ensemble, live, Warsaw, 1983. A rollicking riot, including a version of “Ohnedaruth,” the AECO’s colossal tribute to John Coltrane. With Bowie in his lab coat, wheeling around stage like a boxer dodging blows.
“Aho,” Jack DeJohnette, Zebra, 1985. An odd record on which Bowie accompanied a great drummer who mainly kept to synthesizer. “Aho” is Bowie roaring against a warped-sounding ambient backdrop.
“I Only Have Eyes For You,” Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, I Only Have Eyes For You, 1985. Bowie had always loved pop, and as he grew older he treated it even more reverently. Here’s a cover of the standard immortalized by the Flamingos, with Bowie leading his brass octet along like a man in love who can’t believe his good fortune.
“Smooth Operator,” Brass Fantasy, Serious Fun, 1989. While Lester made his share of “smooth jazz” pop crossovers in the Eighties, he generally did so with elan and restraint, as in this Latin-flavored cover of the Sade hit.
“Funky T,” Lester Bowie’s New York Organ Ensemble, Funky T Cool T, 1991. A fine group (including the young James Carter) that revitalized Bowie’s last decade. This is one of their best moments: a suite built on the roving thoughts of Amina Claudine Myers’ organ.
“I’ll Remember April,” New York Organ Ensemble, live, Germany, 1994. Jazz standard preceded by two minutes of artillery.
“Nessun Dorma,” Brass Fantasy, The Odyssey of Funk and Popular Music, 1997. One of Bowie’s last records, cut two years before his death, his take on Puccini is a premature self-eulogy. Sequenced on the record between covers of Biggie Smalls and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes: soul men, all.