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The Art Ensemble of Chicago: Black to the Future…

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The Art Ensemble of Chicago: Black to the Future…
Photograph by Isio Saba

In all of this, the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago is wholly unique. Roscoe Mitchell, Don Moye, Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, Joseph Jarman and Phillip Wilson attracted many more members to swell the ranks of the Ensemble in its various incarnations and together this group has brought – in its grandiloquent music and theatre – attention to both the African origin of civilisation as well as to its development through the ages into one in which Western European influences such as the music from the Baroque period and the music of the Americas through colonisation by successive European empires through the now-permanent influence of African American music from the Blues and Jazz – from Swing, Bebop, Rap and Hip Hop.

All of this has made the Art Ensemble of Chicago not only one of the four pillars of the AACM, but one of the most significant continuing ensembles in all of music. And no document – musical or otherwise – captures this better than this monumental box set from ECM Records entitled Art Ensemble of Chicago: and associated ensembles (Recordings 1978-2015). The earliest works of the ensemble have, of course, been documented by Delmark Records when the ensemble existed as the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet and made such recordings as Sound (1966), and later when People in Sorrow was recorded as the Art Ensemble of Chicago on July 7, 1969 by Les Industries Musicales Et Electriques Pathé Marconi in Boulogne and was released by Chuck Nessa on his Nessa Records imprint of that year.

At a time (the 1960s and 1970s) when hostility towards the avant-garde movement in Jazz – and more broadly African-American music – was at its highest, and when groups of musicians found greater acceptance in Europe much of the Ensemble’s more widely attended performances took place across the Atlantic and it is during this period that Manfred Eicher began to produce and document the work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago on ECM Records the label co-founded with Karl Egger and Manfred Scheffner in Munich a decade earlier.

Despite drawing deeply and spiritually from the Blues, everything about the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago seems to say that “tradition is a wonderful reality, but not understanding that the inner dynamic of tradition is to innovate, is prison”. Consequently their unique repertoire, conceived and executed in various permutations and combinations of the Ensemble – often with AACM Headman Muhal Richard Abrams – and in other combinations suggesting the “associated ensembles” of this set’s title has been chiselled into an uniquely beautiful, but defiantly provocative body of work from out of the great Jazz Tradition but its ripple effect is felt in every corner of the musical topography of the world. The iconoclastic musicians have positioned themselves in creative conflict with age-old protocols about how to approach orchestral interaction.

By actively throwing overboard melodic, structural and harmonic hooks that have become expressively blunted through overuse, Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors Maghostut and Famoudou Don Moye and other musicians in the orbit of the AACM have built from what might – or might not – be left. The result is that the Art Ensemble of Chicago are one of music’s great originals, wearing the rare badges of being contemporary composers who have succeeded in writing and performing music that has always been not only at once thoroughly modern but also shamelessly traditional. The combination of artfulness and accessibility informs every aspect of their music. It is technically complex and often fiendishly challenging but also vivid and direct in its appeal.
It is painstakingly crafted, but in performance sounds captivatingly effortless and spontaneous.

The works are sometimes short but more often long. Either way the Ensemble packs so much musical incident and (often) theatre into even the briefest timespans that one hardly can get enough of it. Even when – in their most theatrical moments (that can be experienced only from live performances) – their works have a childlike quality and a certain toy-box charm, they conceal, like the children’s books of Roald Dahl, the most complex and very profound adult depths. Two classic examples with invaluable examples of this may be experienced in Nice Guys (1978/79; Vol. I of this enormous boxed set) and on both volumes of the iconic Urban Bushman (1980/82; Vol. III). These relatively early albums not only confirm the Ensemble as one of the star collectives in music. The near operatic sweep of the music shows a playfulness creeping into their musical style while at the same time maintaining a deep affirmation of the fiery seriousness of their complex pan-African-pan-Americanism.

On later work, when members of the (associated) Ensemble gathered together as Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy – especially on Avant Pop (1986; Vol. IX of the set) – the music is entirely of its time, yet often casts loving backward glances towards the work of past masters pointedly reflecting Mr Bowie’s desire to establish an active relationship with music that attracts from afar, yet always with an eye to the present and the future as if a whiff of something recognisable can help (at least) the first-time listener find bearings in what is sometimes a profusion of activity – a sense that while the settings of some of the music may have emerged from the mists of time it is now clearly traversing forward with a clear vision for the future.

In 2001 the surviving members of the Ensemble returned to record Tribute to Lester (Vol X of the set) to pay homage to the trumpeter who had recently passed. They showed in here that they were unchallenged as performers of their own works albeit without the great trumpeter, making light of the complex textures and attacking the more energetic passages of “Suite for Lester”, “Tutankhamen” and (especially) in the profoundly and hypnotically beautiful “He Speaks to me Often in Dreams” with exhilarating bravado. Roscoe Mitchell pulls off the challenging parts of “As Clear as the Sun” with agility and a bright tone suggesting an explosion from the nuclear corona of the sun.

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