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Art Ensemble Of Chicago
We Are On The Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration Noel Gardner , May 6th, 2019 08:51

We Are On The Edge, a 50th anniversary celebration of the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago is both a graceful tribute and a testament to these musicians’ questing vision, finds Noel Gardner

Roscoe Mitchell, last member standing from the first Art Ensemble Of Chicago lineup, says that this contemporary one has convened, and enlisted multiple collaborators more, for the chief purpose of honouring former members of this mighty avant-garde jazz collective who’ve since left this earth. “Dedicated to Lester Bowie, Shaku Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors Maghostut,” reads the pleasantly sans serif-typefaced cover. A half-century of activity – the Art Ensemble were fairly prolific through much of the 1970s at least; with Mitchell turning 80 next year and still employed in academia, it’s understandably slower nowadays – is but a hook for a salute to the departed. We Are On The Edge, a double-CD set featuring 12 studio recordings and a live performance from Michigan last year, is both a graceful tribute and a testament to these musicians’ questing vision.

The studio recordings, featuring a total of 18 performers, reimagine a few older Art Ensemble pieces amidst several new compositions, and rarely if ever is there a sense of the results feeling archaic, or indeed aiming for the bleeding edge of modernity. ‘Variations And Sketches From The Bamboo Terrace’ is an orchestral work of Mitchell’s dating from the late 80s and here blessed with the vocal of Rodolfo Cordova-Lebron, an opera singer with no apparent profile outside of this album. Classical modes have been employed throughout the Art Ensemble’s catalogue, so this fits into their legacy; in a different way, and from the other end of the vocal pavilion, is Camae ‘Moor Mother’ Ayewa, whose boiling-point slam poet lyrics enliven the title track and ‘I Greet You With Open Arms’, plus the more sedate flute-and-handdrums number ‘Mama Koko’.

The album’s instrumental turns are no less arresting. ‘Chi-Congo 50’, originally a Malachi Favors composition from 1970, is a percussion-led heater of intangible rhythmic fluidity, and a showcase of sorts for Titos Sompa and Enoch Williamson, both present in the group’s orbit almost from the beginning, and Famoudou Don Moye, after Mitchell the most venerable full-time member. ‘Saturday Morning’ and ‘Fanfare And Bell’ highlight the Art Ensemble’s rhythm-driven and classical leanings respectively, cellist Tomeka Reid forging an especially striking presence on the latter. And ‘Oasis At Dusk’, which closes the first disc, is perhaps the most prominent platform for Mitchell’s saxophone: free without being tonally harsh, teeming with snaky fervour that belies his age.

The version of ‘Oasis…’ that appears on the second, live disc was taped only a few days after the studio take but has a markedly different, flute-led energy: testament that virtuosity is the Art Ensemble’s watchword. The setting, perhaps, encourages lengthier detours, notably a 19-minute ‘Tutankhamun’ (another of Favors’, and also 50 this year) which builds from eerie sparseness to slippery knots of sax and bells. ‘Saturday Morning’ is upfront, almost bullish compared to the previous version, all alto blare and punished congas, while a cheerful lope through 1973’s ‘Odwalla’ is Mitchell’s cue to introduce his entire band. They’re received with glee by the audience, as this resultant document ought to be.