Golden Years

I am a DJ, I am what I play.

Lester Bowie
The 5th Power
Black Saint : 1978

LB, trumpet; Arthur Blythe, alto sax; Amina Myers, piano; Malachi Favors, bass; Phillip Wilson, drums.

“All’s fair in love and war – and music is both. So use anything, as long as it works.” –Lester Bowie

The trumpeter with the self-described sound somewhere “between Miles Davis and Donald Duck.” The lab-coat wearing Art Ensemble and AACM figurehead. The studious instrumentalist who could trace brass-playing relatives in his family back to the 19th century. The searching musician who spent time in Nigeria living and playing with Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti. The bandleader whose Brass Fantasy repertoire included the Howdy Doody theme, The Spice Girls, Marilyn Manson, Notorious B.I.G., and even Puccini. The clown who knew that seriousness in life is best measured by the good jokes you can tell. Lester Bowie was all that, and many other things besides.

As if the Art Ensemble didn’t cut enough impressive albums in the 1970s, Bowie himself waxed a number of killer sides during the decade: Fast Last!, Rope-A-Dope, and our selection here… The 5th Power. Recorded after his group with Julius Hemphill and before the formation of Brass Fantasy, it finds Lester perched – as usual – between trad and avant, serious and sarcastic, expansive and tightly coiled. And ready to leap in all directions at once.

The esteemed original Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide (the yellow one, edited by John Swenson) awards The 5th Power one of its rare five star ratings. And even goes so far as to cite this quintet with Arthur Blythe and Amina Claudine Myers as “one of the best groups of the 1970s.” That’s a tall order, but the band is certainly one of the great overlooked units of an overlooked period. Their music isn’t as eclectic or freewheeling as the Art Ensemble, but the relatively straight-faced playing is never less than thrilling, often brimming with strange, subtle, and brilliant asides. They gallop gamely ahead through each tune and every time they approach a fork in the road, they gladly take it.  Â

The compact title track storms out of the gate, erupting into section where Bowie and Blythe stuff themselves with red hots and then blow fire at each other. It all sets up a fierce Myers piano solo that manages to sound simultaneously harshly angular and unstoppably fluid. Nice trick. (Anyone out there have any of her 70s and 80s solo work we could borrow?) Bowie and Blythe return and begin to fall away from each other, finally leaving some breathing room for the rhythm section. Just enough to add some different textures but not enough to stop everything for a solo. This ain’t that type of tune.

More leisurely and lengthy, “Three in One” takes its time building up a head of steam. This is a road trip where the detours are more compelling than any final destination. The group is reduced to a trio here and they make use of the space. Dig Malachi Favor’s spidery bass and Lester’s gassy mouthpiece malaprops, braying calls, and burring lyricism. Philip Wilson’s drumming is more felt than heard, but he gets the job done, playing tour guide one moment and bus driver the next. Wondering who’s got their eyes on the wheel? That’s your job.

Category Lester Bowie

11 Responses to Golden Years

  1. Hilarious picture, too.


  2. yes, a comparison to David Bowie is very apropos.

  3. Far as I can tell, Arthur Doyle is not on this record (as mentioned above with reference to the Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide).

  4. Not sure how I made that typo – it’s Arthut BLYTHE not Doyle on this session. Sorry for the confusion and thanks for the catch!

  5. Just to make it explicit for those who might not know- Bowie (L.) is on a Bowie (D.) recording, Black Tie White Noise. I’m not a huge fan of D. Bowie’s sax playing, but there are some very interesting tracks overall on that D. Bowie album.

    forgive me if I am stating the obvious…


  6. This same group cut a HORO twofer around the same time The 5th Power was recorded. It was about as good, as I recall. I sure wish I still had it.

  7. lester bowie is serious, but from paying close attention to numerous art ensemble records i get the impression that ROSCOE MITCHELL IS THE MAN!!! yes. i hear he did some solo albums but the last time i looked they were all hard to get and prohibitively expensive. at the very least, this post will make me look again, but in the mean time you packing any roscoe? ……… the art ensemble were just…. “outta sight” :)

  8. Hey SKT – Oh yeah, we’ve got some Roscoe and will try to post some fairly soon. There’s no doubt that he’s the man. So much great stuff. Thanks for the suggestion.

  9. ;) nice one… great blog btw. serious sounds… thanks

  10. for Roscoe: ‘the flow of things’ lp is a monster. go to see him live. Hugh Ragin on tpt is a whole new world of the trumpet. he breaks barriers. as for Lester: i remember him ignoring a reporters questions as he played with my daughter backstage. A great unsung hero of music. Nice Guys indeed. thanks again dest. out

  11. Hugh Ragin’s trumpet solo on “Sing/Song” from Roscoe’s “Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin’ Shoes” is one of the most infectious pieces of pure joy I know, not to be missed.