A Half-Century Not Out: Art Ensemble Of Chicago Live

Sean Kitching goes to see Art Ensemble Of Chicago's 50th Anniversary Concert live at the Barbican

Live photographs courtesy of Mark Allan/Barbican

In April of this year, The Art Ensemble Of Chicago released We Are On The Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration. It’s a stunning record, easily one of the best of 2019, with contributions from Moor Mother, Tomeka Reid and Nicole Mitchell, to name but three of the supporting players. For a band to have been around for 50 years to then go and release some of their best material is almost unprecedented. Of course, The Art Ensemble Of Chicago are no ordinary group.

Tonight’s show is billed as both a celebration of their 50th Anniversary and a tribute to co-founders Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors Maghostut. Roscoe Mitchell and Famadou Don Moye are the only surviving members from the Art Ensemble’s early days, and even Moye (who joined in 1970) wasn’t there from the very beginning. Yet this is a far cry from touring rock or pop bands with only one or two originals.

Underpinned as they are by the AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), the Art Ensemble’s philosophy is one in which scholarliness and apprenticeship play an essential part, and which also opens them up to an ongoing capacity for renewal. The day prior to the Barbican show, Mitchell and Moye answered questions in the venue’s Fountain Room. When asked about revisiting pieces of music from their past on that album, Moye had this to say:

“I don’t think of it as revisiting. It’s an extension of the ideas, of the original seeds that were planted when I first met the Art Ensemble in 1965. When we expand on the music that we’re doing, it just makes us another challenge to continue going and find other elements, creating other possibilities within the structure. We’ve got more than 500 songs in our catalogue. I could never think of revisiting [laughs]. Similar structure, different elements. Times change and technology changes, so we have to adapt to new things. It’s a constant challenge when you get up and face your instrument every day. That’s not revisiting, that’s going forward.”

On the night of the concert, 14 musicians arrive onstage, momentarily facing left in a moment’s silent contemplations as is their standard procedure. Most notable by their absence are the two primary vocalists from the new record, Moor Mother and Rodolfo Cordova-Lebron. It would be dishonest of me to say that they weren’t missed from the performance, but there is so much else on offer, including the presence of Shabaka Hutchings, Junius Paul, Tomeka Reid and Abel Selaocoe, that it would be myopic to dwell on their non-attendance. Three double bassists bowing at the back, piano on the left, 2 cellos, violin, viola, sopranino, soprano, baritone and alto sax, tuba, trumpet, trombone, drums and additional hand held percussion – a significant array of musical tones and timbres that nevertheless takes its time to manifest the many styles this group is capable of producing.

A slow, warm hum of strings, with Roscoe Mitchell adding sparse phrases here and there. As with We Are On The Edge, much of this material isn’t jazz at all, but rather a solemn and melancholic form of modern classical music that somehow conveys an abstract sense of beauty despite the ominous drone of anxious strings and unpredictable parps of brass. There is something truly otherworldly about these sections of tonight’s concert, as if the music were beamed in from somewhere else entirely, establishing experimental registers of polyphony like some extra dimensional entity attempting to find its earthly voice. There is also a looseness, a spaciousness not usually found in modern classical orchestral or chamber music.

As wonderfully confounding as this mode is, I’m already beginning to think that two hours of sounds such as these might become rather trying, when the band embark on a different tack entirely. Simon Sieger disengages from his trombone and takes up a tuba. A more repetitive double bass figure begins, with the tuba adding additional percussive sounds. Moye and percussionist, Baba Sissoko, move to the centre of the stage, with Roscoe Mitchell conducting with both hands held low at his sides. We get versions of Moye tunes ‘Saturday Morning’ and a stirring rendition of ‘Chi-Congo’ with all-out percussion. Cellist Abel Selaocoe provides one of the highlights of the night by adding a wonderfully deep, guttural vocal to a track.

Pianist Brett Carson has an amazing solo moment, running seemingly random clusters of notes up and down his keys that develop into a kind of evanescent form as the notes collide against one another. Hugh Ragin also has beautiful solo moment on trumpet – a series of unassailable peaks and trills that elevate the listener into a rarefied realm as if ascending a mountain peak. It isn’t until ‘Odwalla (The Theme)’ appears that the kind of swing normally associated with jazz makes its presence felt. I’m surprised when it happens, because I know that tune usually marks the end of the set, and such is my absorption in the proceedings that I can’t believe we’re already over the hour mark.

As the string section carry the tune’s beautiful melody, Mitchell takes the opportunity to introduce the band. By nine, everyone has left the stage, but are summoned back for one more track by an enthusiastic audience brought to their feet by the performance. Upon the band’s return, two of the three bassists have electric basses. As ‘Funky Aeco’, from 1984s The Third Decade begins, several members of the crowd seated behind me give out rapturous cheers. It’s a fun and funky end to an enormously varied night of music that is a fitting celebration of 50 years of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago. Their long-worn banner of “Great Black Music, Ancient To The Future” is as accurate as ever. Long may they continue.

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