If only for its sublime evocation of bagpipe tunes of glory and its redemptive use of synthesizer – still an expensive plaything in the hands of most jazz musicians – saxophonist Joseph Jarman's "Prayer for Jimbo Kwesi" is the most striking cut on The Third Decade, the Art Ensemble of Chicago's first studio album since 1980. But, as you might expect from the band that gave eclecticism a good name, there is a little bit of everything here, all of it dazzling: a chiming sonic meditation by saxophonist Roscoe E. Mitchell; an affectionate sendup of a moony 1930s ballad written by Mitchell's amateur-songwriter father; a taut bop line by trumpeter Lester Bowie that would do the Jazz Messengers proud; the requisite pots-and-pans percussion rampage, which leads up to an all-out collective improvisation; even some wicked in-the-pocket funk, with bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut and drummer Famoudou Don Moye showing the way.
The Art Ensemble's five members play more than three score musical instruments and noisemakers. Their versatility, together with the band's respect for textural and dynamic nuance, ensures surprises not only from track to track but from measure to measure. The tranquil interludes that grace even The Third Decade's harsher and more dour selections make it the Art Ensemble of Chicago album to recommend to listeners who categorically reject most avant-garde jazz. Few bands have exerted as decisive or as salubrious an influence on jazz over the last two decades, and on the evidence presented here, it looks as though the Art Ensemble's third decade as a performing unit is off to a promising start.