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January 30 , 2004

Malachi Favors Maghostut (1927-2004)

Malachi Favors Maghostut, for almost 40 years the powerhouse bassist of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, died on January 30th.
     His death is the second major blow to the Art Ensemble in recent times. Their 2003 ECM release “Tribute to Lester” lamented the passing of trumpeter Lester Bowie. It was Bowie who had once said of Malachi, “he plays so much more than the music or the notes of the bass. His spirit is so heavy, he holds us together.” Now both are gone, the outlandish frontman and the heartbeat bassist...
     The oldest of the Art Ensemble (most reference works misdate his year of birth by a decade, but his daughter recently confirmed that it was 1927, not ’37), Malachi studied with Wilbur Ware in Chicago after moving north from Lexington, Mississipppi. He first attracted jazz listeners’ attention while playing with pianist Andrew Hill in the mid-1950s, and was well-versed in bebop. In 1961 he joined Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band which paved the way for the founding of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. It was in this context that Favors encountered the improvisers who would make up the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble which, re-christened the Art Ensemble of Chicago, became the AACM’s flagship band. Their live concerts on both sides of the Atlantic and their recordings for Nessa, BYG, America, ECM and other labels had a tremendous impact on the development of jazz improvisation. Jazz, meanwhile, was too limiting a term for what the Art Ensemble themselves did. Their motto “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future” was also their musical programme, and for the “ancient” part of the repertoire, in the early days, they deferred to Malachi Favors’ interest in African tribal music, in ethnomusicology generally, and in what might now be called “imaginary folklore”. Favors’s myth-and-mystery composition “Tutankhamen” belonged in this tradition; it was a piece the AEC returned to again and again through the decades. The group’s ritualistic stage presence – the face paint, the flowing robes, the wrist and ankle-bells – also reflected Malachi’s convictions about the deep roots of the music.
     Above all, though, there was the sound. As Down Beat wrote, in the early days: “Favors is virtually without peer in the contemporary bass idiom. He couples his mentor’s resplendently resonant tone with an uncanny sense of timing and harmony, plucking eerily hypnotic ostinatos or creating fantastic arco overtone structures.”
     A true group musician, Malachi Favors Maghostut had little interest in developing a ‘solo’ career outside the Art Ensemble, and no yearnings to be a bandleader. But he also made important contributions to other bands including the Ritual Trio of Kahil El Zabar and, recently, Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet. Favors also appears on recordings by Muhal Richard Abrams, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Alan Silva, Sunny Murray, Dewey Redman and others.