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The Art Ensemble of Chicago: We Are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration

A wildly revised version of this venerable creative music ensemble makes a clean, beautiful new recording in the studio and live, with fresh music from Roscoe Mitchell and an argument that the original Art Ensemble of Chicago had everything to do with today's New Jazz.

We Are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration
The Art Ensemble of Chicago


26 April 2019

The Art Ensemble of Chicago used to be the weirdest, coolest, most wonderful, most avant-garde yet most down to earth band in improvised music. Maybe it always will be. Emerging from Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) and embodying a full range of music from the great American blues tradition, from African diasporic music generally, and from anywhere else that inspired the members, the Art Ensemble emerged in the mid-1960s. The band's first few recordings were released under the names of different members (Sound by the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet in 1966, Numbers 1 & 2 by Lester Bowie, Congliptious by the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble in 1968), but in 1969 the band really emerged with a half-dozen releases on various labels, billed as "The Art Ensemble of Chicago".

One of those recordings, 1969's People in Sorrow is arguably a top 20 masterpiece, a 40-minute live performance from France that displays a huge swath of brilliance that would always be associated with the band: texture, silence, human passion, humor, groove, freedom, composition (sometimes meticulous, sometimes spontaneous), and the ability to express the soul of a people. They never called it "jazz", preferring the term "Great Black Music—Ancient to the Future". That pretty much summed it up.

The ensemble's long-standing membership was: Roscoe Mitchell (reeds), Joseph Jarman (reeds), Lester Bowie (trumpet), Malachi Favours (bass), and Don Moye (drums), though everyone played many instruments, particularly percussion. Drummer Phillip Wilson was an original member who left in 1967 for Paul Butterfield's blues band, and some early records included just the quartet before Moye joined in 1970. Together, they were a fearsome band, cooperative and fiercely independent, theatrical (including tribal-looking face paint and costumes, including Bowie's trademark lab coat), and brilliant technicians who nevertheless played with soul and freedom. Jarman left for about a decade in 1993, Bowie died in 1999 of liver cancer, and Favors passed in 2004. Other members have joined, keeping the group active to this day, supplemented by trumpeter Corey Wilkes, bassist Jaribu Shahid, cellist Tomeika Ried, trumpeter Hugh Ragin, and some others.

We are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration is certainly a celebration—a double-disc set split between a studio session (AEC's first since 2004) and a live concert from "Edgefest 2018" in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Jarman would die in January of this year, but he doesn't appear on Edge. Instead, however, the core band is supplemented by a large crew of musicians whose careers clearly reflect the influence and power of the Art Ensemble. The result is a reprise of the band's music but—in astonishing and surprising ways—a reimagining of it, a transformation. Both the studio set and the live set are meticulous and precise, rarely suggesting the tribal tumult of the band at its peak. Indeed, We Are on the Edge is largely marked by riveting composition for strings, sounding significantly like the New Jazz of this century rather than the old Art Ensemble.

The argument, perhaps, made by We Are on the Edge, is that the Art Ensemble was a prelude to the increasingly composed music of the last 20 years, music that blends careful and complex arrangement with improvisation in ways that can borrow equally from "jazz" and new classical music. The clearest example of this is probably the title track, which is part of both the studio set and the live concert. "We Are on the Edge" begins with a composed trumpet line with a royal feeling, which is then supplemented by a chart for strings (violins, viola, cello, basses), flute, and additional brass. It is not atonal music, but it has a shifting tonal center and some dissonance. Largely, however, the music is played with a classical purity of tone and articulation. The studio version eventually works into a groove, over which Moor Mother recites a poem suggesting that a people, after a long struggle, are "on the edge" of a victory. Live, the ensemble is no less precise and, if anything, because the groove and the poem never develop, the feeling is even more that of chamber music. The musicians, however, open up more to a long, collective improvisation that is so consistent with the feeling of the composed music that you may not exactly identify the transition. It is only in this section of this composition (written by Roscoe Mitchell) that you a listener might think, Hey, this sounds like the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The connection is there, at last, and you can realize how all this musical history flows together.

The new recording, then, is not a rousing reprise of the band's music. The band recasts the tradition, reimagines it, spins off from it, but still reinforces the critical legacy of its members and their collective vision. The music is mostly very different from classic Art Ensemble music, even as Mitchell and Moye wrote most of it. And that sense of transformation is, itself, part of the tradition.

There is a great deal of music, mostly composed by Mitchell, that sounds like the title track, with the string players setting the tone and carrying the intent of the composers. "Variations and Sketches from the Bamboo Terrace" is a chilling mood piece, with the strings dominating even as muted trumpet catches your ear in the higher registers. Rodolfo Cordova-Lebron adds a vocal articulated with classical tone, making the piece sound less like any expected "Great Black Music" than like a chamber art song. The second phase of the performance may or may not contain any improvisation, though some blues tonality does creep in. But it is secondary. "I Greet You with Open Arms" brings back Moor Mother's poetry but sets it over a collective improvisation—but again one where the string ensemble is at least as prominent as the brass and woodwind sounds that were a tradition of the old Art Ensemble. The two pieces of "Jamaican Farewell" incorporate Cordova-Lebron with a somewhat stilted bit of composition for the chamber group. The vocal, for lyric anyway, seems like it should be something more like folk singing, and Cordova-Lebron is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

"Fanfare and Bell" is perhaps the most successful of the performances dominated by strings. The written sections are strange and full of wonder, creeping around a moody tonality without ever sounding derivative of other music, and the improvisation emerges seamlessly from and above this writing, Nicole Mitchell's flute and Ragin's trumpet purring and rolling through the arrangement. The strings, too, begin to veer away from standard sound and tonality. The feeling that a powerful collective improvisation is emerging and swirling—not a string of individual solos as in most "jazz"—is very "Art Ensemble", but the context and sound remain different.

Elsewhere on We Are on the Edge, there is music that more closely aligns with Art Ensemble history, though not in any kind of lockstep. Moye's "Oasis at Dusk" (also on both the studio and live sets) plays with the patterning and precision that the Strongs make possible, but ultimately it locks into a groove set up by bass, percussion, and some strummed strings too. Nicole Mitchell's flute solo in concert is enchanting. It is a gentle piece, finally, that is driven by lilting but still complex polyrhythms—and it flows into a more energetic percussion jam ("Chi-Congo 50", with "Saturday Morning" being similar but including a bold free session from the horns at the tail end). Moye's "Mama Koko" is another gentle joy, with a pulse build on kalimba that supports a vocal in an African language, synthesizers subtly swirling in the background along with muted trumpets, Mitchell's flute finding space to knit beauty too.

Among these more historical tracks, it is the Malachi Favors tune "Tutankhamun" that is most marvelous and timeless. Played in concert, it travels a million miles, just like the old Art Ensemble adventures used to. Up front, it is a superb feature for the bass players, but it develops a loping swing, with the horns playing a winsome head arrangement. Happily, though, this is followed by a long and thumping bass solo that gives way not to a reprise of the melody but to a free improvisation for the string ensemble along with Moye—slashes and swirls of sound that lean into texture and unconventional sounds, silence, stillness, and eventually a transition to the horns, festooned with more percussion. There is a moment around the 14:30 mark that sounds like the two Mitchells plus Moye, quiet and intimate, that sounds like the band has decided to leave room for the missing Bowie, Jarman, and Favors. The head returns after the flute takes over again.

What is missing from these performances, perhaps, is the kind of free swing with which the old Art Ensemble was so joyous. They didn't swing like a straight-ahead band, exactly, but they had a fierce swing as just one incredible arrow in the band's huge quiver. The last song on the live set, the band's old "Odwalla/The Theme", has some of that feeling, but there's nothing here that really shakes with the old-old history, the understanding that this "Great Black Music" is rooted in Jimmy Blanton and Sam Woodyard too, that these guys loved Basie and Bechet, Mingus and Monk as much as they came from a school that was breaking free of all that.

But that's okay. We Are on the Edge doesn't have be everything that the Art Ensemble was across more than three decades of wildly diverse music. It's better, isn't it?, that the new recording with so many new (if indebted) musicians dares to be new, like the Art Ensemble always felt. And it features a new direction from Roscoe Mitchell, new reflections on compositions by Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors, fresh grooves from Don Moye, and a clear sense of how this tradition, Ancient to the Future indeed, is connected to the most vital creative music of today.

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