by W. Kim Heron
Slap down CD No. 1, Track No. 3 and put words to the familiar melodys new twists: "Hello, Dolly," the trumpet seems to say, "this aint Louis, Dolly ... but I suuuuure dig ol Satch and then some mo."
There you have, circa 1974, a musical snapshot of Lester Bowie, circa 1974, a jazz radical unabashedly strutting his barbecue roots, mixing up Satchmo, Miles and Don Cherry into one of the biggest tonal vocabularies of any trumpeter.
In the previous decade, Bowie had helped define Chicagos Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. With Fast Last! and Rope-a-Dope 74 and 75 Muse sessions respectively, now reissued as American Gumbo Bowie made strides redefining himself.
Rope-a-Dope is the looser and lesser of the two, which isnt to knock a fiery update of "St. Louis Blues" or a tribute to Muhammad Alis ring work.
But its on Fast Last! that Bowie and the nimble pianist John Hicks deliver the goods on "Hello Dolly." Its the record with the outlandish three-drums-plus-trumpet workout ("F Troop Rides Again"). And every bit as memorable as "Hello Dolly" are two octet pieces arranged by saxophonist Julius Hemphill. Hemphill gives the five-piece horn section (three brass and two reeds) the kind of soulful, serpentine lines that he would later make a trademark in the World Saxophone Quartet. This ensemble makes Ornette Colemans classic "Lonely Woman" a work of moody mystery. And on Hemphills "Banana Whistle," the music kicks off with a cataclysm and settles down into a lovely, witty bounce (though rather obvious editing detracts at a key juncture).
Bowies has turned out more than two decades of exemplary music since these sessions, both with the AEC (check last years Coming Home Jamaica) and his own groups (this years The Odyssey Of Funk & Popular Music: Vol. 1). The sad note is that Hemphill, who died in 1995, would rarely arrange afterward for horn sections mixing reeds and brass. For Bowie, Fast Last points to the future; for Hemphill, its a reminder of what could have been.