Thursday, December 27, 2012

Theme do Yoyo, Fontella Bass and the Art Ensemble of Chicago

Phil Freeman of Burning Ambulance has noted the death of Fontella Bass, RnB singer and wife of Lester Bowie, avant-garde trumpeter with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. She sang "Theme do Yoyo" on one of their earliest and best-known albums, Les Stances a Sophie, which was soundtrack music for a movie of the same name. Here's a YouTube clip from the movie:

I haven't got the foggiest idea what's going on in the movie, which I've never seen. But that album hit me like a ton of bricks when I first heard it back in, say, 1969 (when it was released) or 1970, and I've still got the vinyl. I could hear the funk in the bass line, but it was jittery in a way that funk and RnB are not. And the horn solos, wonderful!

A quick check of YouTube shows that others have covered the tune. Very interesting. It's not often that anyone covers avant-garde/free jazz tunes. But then this wasn't an ordinary free jazz tune. There is jazz that is free in the sense that it rigorously avoids recognizable rhythm, melody, and harmony.  It CAN be fun to play, though I'm not so fond of listening to it. The Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEOC) was free even of THAT stricture. And that freedom left them room to make ordinary sense, or at least to float it on an extraordinary foundation.

The jitter in that bass line was avant-garde. But the core was pure funk. And so with Fontella Bass's vocal, pure RnB. But her ability to negotiate it over that bass line, pure freedom. A remarkable performance.

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