July 24, 2024


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50 Years On, the Art Ensemble of Chicago Is Still Transforming: Photos, Videos

The Art Ensemble of Chicago was already six years into an acclaimed career when it had its first extended run at an American jazz club.

In honor of the occasion — at the Five Spot in the East Village, late 1975 — the members of the group staggered theatrically onstage like drunks entering a two-bit casino. The trumpeter Lester Bowie, wearing a visor, tugged on a bottle of whiskey while he errantly dealt cards onto a table. The saxophonist Joseph Jarman and the percussionist Famoudou Don Moye limped in, clutching each other, swearing and drinking. Eventually the bassist Malachi Favors and the saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell arrived, and the casino act morphed into a five-man parley of percussion before the horn players finally took up their main instruments.

The Art Ensemble never liked playing at places like the Five Spot, and its entry that evening was a way of sending up the institution of jazz clubs, which tended to give high black culture low-budget treatment.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago in the mid-70s.CreditTom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives, via Getty Images

In March, in Knoxville, Tenn., Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Moye — now in their 70s — were joined by more than a dozen musicians as they strode onstage at the Tennessee Theater as part of the Big Ears festival. The broadly intergenerational band stood at attention, facing east, until Mr. Mitchell tooted a single note and the musicians snapped to their places. They opened their sheet music and looked out from one of the more majestic stages in the Southern United States.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and last Friday it released “We Are on the Edge,” a two-disc collection of compositions new and old, including one studio disc and one captured live. The ensemble was a quintet throughout its classic era, and the current version (17 people on the album) is the largest in its history. The expanded format helps empower Mr. Mitchell, who has become a significant composer of chamber music in his own right, even if it alters some of the Art Ensemble’s old sonic identity.

Even when the group had a steady lineup, its sound never stayed put, not even for a few minutes. Usually dressed in face paint and extravagant Pan-African outfits, the band taught audiences to listen for timbral interplay and variegated rhythm, and the way improvisers could follow each other in a leaderless weave. What it didn’t offer was lyrical melodies, classic song forms or easy-to-grasp solos.

And along the way, the group always demanded that its work be treated as a form of art music. In the process, it has helped open up institutions to other, less Eurocentric approaches to performance.

Explaining the group’s modus operandi, Mr. Moye said in an interview recently, “It was all based around the idea of expanding the standard instrumentation of piano, bass, horns, drums.” Then he went a step further: “Part of the commitment to multidisciplinary thinking was a commitment to independence.”

The classic Art Ensemble featured just a few musicians playing a dizzying array of instruments; the current version is packed with people, but most of them stick to their primary axes. The diversity of texture and tone has expanded — particularly thanks to the addition of a string section — but the individual musicians don’t have as much room to move around freely. The pieces on the live disc have a surprising resemblance to the versions on the studio album.

The band’s new double album.

But all told, the record is a triumph, and if this isn’t what the original Art Ensemble sounded like, it is certainly the kind of experimental work it was trying to carve out space for.

In the mid-1960s Mr. Mitchell became one of the earliest members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a seminal black musicians’ cooperative in Chicago that continues today. Even before it came together, he had been leading exploratory bands, drawing inspiration from the pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and his Experimental Band. Mr. Mitchell’s quartet would eventually become a collective, calling itself the Art Ensemble and then — after Lester Bowie pawned his furniture to fund a full-band move to France in 1969 — the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Once there, the group upset the expectations of European audiences accustomed to mainstream American jazz. But it also found those audiences willing to adapt. “It was a turning point for European views on African-American musical expression, because it was very different than the kinds of things that the musicians who had been going there before had done,” said George Lewis, a composer, performer and musicologist who wrote “A Power Stronger than Itself,” the definitive history of the A.A.C.M. “And it was a turning point for the musicians themselves, because they started to see how much their music could mean to the world.”

Roscoe Mitchell at Big Ears in March.CreditNathan Zucker

The Art Ensemble found a regular home at the Lucernaire theater, performing multiple nights each week. The five musicians pooled the money they made, putting a little into a collective pot after every gig, and stayed contentedly in Paris for more than two years.

The group made a number of albums for small labels during that time, many of which have withstood the test of time — particularly “Tutankhamun” and “People in Sorrow.” They set up the ensemble for a brief relationship with Atlantic Records upon its return to the United States in 1972, bringing the band its widest popular reach.

In dealings with labels, as with venues, the Art Ensemble resisted manipulation or inadequate compensation. “We wanted to have more control over our own destinies,” Mr. Mitchell said in an interview, “because we had looked at what had happened to some of the great masters of our music, who were out there on their own and didn’t really fare that well.”

At Big Ears in March, from the stage of the Tennessee Theater wafted buoyant grooves played by three double-bassists at once, and a shudder of rain forest sounds (this was some indistinguishable combination of Christina Wheeler’s electronics, Mr. Moye’s hand drums, and the small cohort of percussionists beside him). Eventually, Camae Ayewa, known as Moor Mother, began reciting poetry. If Jarman, a multi-instrumentalist and poet, used to recite verses that challenged the listener in a playful, quizzical fashion — like a free-jazz Dalai Lama — Ms. Ayewa was doing something else. Her voice swelled with strength and fury, and it came at you with the force of an arrow. “Take us back to our homeland,” she demanded. “Teach us our language.”

Ms. Ayewa, whose career as Moor Mother has just taken off in the past few years, is among the youngest of the Art Ensemble’s new members. The group also includes Fred Berry, a trumpeter who played in Mr. Mitchell’s original quartet back in the mid-1960s, and Jaribu Shahid, who first joined the Art Ensemble in the mid-2000s.

That was around the last time the group put out an album, and it seemed to be on indefinite hiatus until a return to the road — in sextet form — a couple of years ago. Asked what led him and Mr. Moye to bring on such a large team of new musicians, most of them from younger generations, Mr. Mitchell alluded to the importance of continued exchange. “The A.A.C.M. sparked a second generation of younger musicians,” Mr. Mitchell said, “and they’ve now become a part of us.”