This recording, comprised of two complete Art Ensemble of Chicago albums -- Les Stances a Sophie with singer Fontella Bass from 1970 and People in Sorrow from 1969 -- offers two very different sides of the group's sound from this key period in their development. Recorded in France and released on the Nessa label in the United States, the two discs show how much in command the AEC were of their strengths even at that early date, though for the record it should be noted that with the exception of Don Moye and Lester Bowie, the trio of Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, and Malachi Favors had been playing together since 1965. Living in self-imposed exile in France, the band explored the complete historical continuum of jazz and moved the free jazz boundary further to the left. While Les Stances a Sophie is perhaps the most accessible AEC album from the 1960s or 1970s, it nonetheless showcases the love of adventure inside traditional forms. Fontella Bass, married to Bowie at the time, was a catalyst coming from the gospel and R&B traditions. She brought out the sense of groove and grit in the band's rampant experimentalism, and Bowie reigned them in further with his own swinging pastoralism that came just as much from Louis Armstrong as it did from Ted Curson and Albert Ayler. The finest examples of the culture clash in the jazz lineage come on "Theme de Yoyo," on which Bass sings, and the shuffling New Orleans swing of "Variations on a Theme of Monteverdi." There's plenty of AEC weirdness here, too; beautiful passages of multi-textured dissonance and elongated improvisations on thematic statements. But as fine an album as Les Stances a Sophie is, it cannot compare to one of the true masterworks in the AEC's catalog, People in Sorrow. Comprised of just one piece -- split into two long sections as it was on the original LP -- People in Sorrow is a meditation on sound itself. This is the AEC at their most adventurous, yet their most dynamically restrained. There are periods of long silence interrupted sometimes only by a single percussion instrument, bass note, or series of tonal breathing from the horns. The effect is crystalline, sad, beautiful, and haunting. It is heartbreaking in its beauty and poignant in its intent. When tension seems to grow, efforts are made collectively to dispel it in order to stay focused on the thematic elements in the improvisation. When the AEC do engage in sound as a group and the flow becomes more immediate, there are always one or two instrumentalists holding back, anchoring everything in the mystery of sonic inquiry. There is only one section of the piece, about 13 minutes into part two, where edgy dissonance is allowed the space to give utterance, and its more in the form of tonal release than harmonic engagement. Because immediately after, the theme reasserts itself, albeit with Favors playing double time under the long, slow lines by Bowie and Jarman, and then only to underline everything that has taken place previously. The fire then takes hold and the AEC become what most people know them as -- intense free jazzers with a love for smeared textures and tonal white-out. But even here, three minutes before the end of the piece, everything moves back to the seamless and spatial, ushering in the silence that has its own voice as a kind of sixth member. The small, scalar statement made with the horns being breathed through rather than played upon is the heartbreaking exit upon a long, continuous drone upon a sopranino saxophone that takes it out with small notes from a thumb piano that don't so much end as cease to weep. This is perhaps the most essential of all AEC reissues to appear on CD, as it was previously thought that the master to People in Sorrow might have been lost. Thank goodness it was not, because this record, along with its more famous counterpart, Les Stances a Sophie, deepens the AEC's legacy considerably; these recordings sound as contemporary and futuristic as they did when they were released.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek