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Sunday, February 9, 2020

Art Ensemble of Chicago - We are on the Edge (PI Recordings / Erased Tapes Records 2019)***(*)

By Hinrich Julius

Anniversaries deserve to be celebrated – and with this recording, two of the historic five members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago do celebrate the 50th anniversary of the band. Roscoe Mitchell and Don Moye gathered an ensemble of 18 musicians (including a conductor) and dedicated the recording to the deceased members Lester Bowie, Shaku Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors Maghostut. The ensemble includes well-known artists connected both to recent versions of the Art Ensemble and to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) like Nicole Mitchell, Hugh Ragin, Jaribu Shahid, Tomeka Reid and Junius Paul. Three strings and three basses in addition to three percussionists give it a flavor unknown to other recordings of the Art Ensemble and with reservations it can be called a nice and successful recording - not the highlight of the ensembles output, but in large parts a worthy addition to the catalogue.

Yes, it is a record of the Art Ensemble of Chicago – even with the augmented personnel. Since its beginnings other musicians have been members or at least been integrated for a recording, at the beginning especially in the position of percussion and then also as guest stars like Fontella Bass (Les Stances à Sophie, Pathé Marconi, 1970) or Cecil Taylor (Thelonious Sphere Monk: Dreaming Of The Masters Vol.2, DIW 1991 ) . The Art Ensemble was always liberal in allowing its members to do other projects as described in the highly recommended book by Paul Steinbeck: Message to Our Folks (University of Chicago Press 2017 ) . The ensemble also continued with new part-time members when Joseph Jarman dropped out of music for 10 years before returning in 2003. Today two of its historical members are still alive and active with especially Roscoe Mitchell producing both improvised (e.g. Bells for the South Side, ECM 2017 ) and composed music (e.g. Littlefield Concert Hall Mills College March 19-20,2018 Wide Hive 2019 ) on a continuous basis. This recording contains more composed passages than earlier Art Ensemble records probably due to the influence of Mitchell, but it also is a continuation of traditional spirits of the Art Ensemble – Black Power, Groove and Melody.

It is not easy to evaluate the music’s quality, as parts are charming and draw you in, while other pieces even do annoy, although in a calm and peaceful way. In its review of 50 years AACM, this blog called the already mentioned record with Cecil Taylor the Art Ensembles’ Swan Song, its last relevant recording. Reviews of a concert of a smaller version of this Art Ensemble at the Berlin Jazzfestival in November 2019 make you hesitate to judge positively. The performance was called stale (“altbacken” in German ). It was neither black nor future, but rather conventional chamber music. And yes, partially these evaluations are true to these recordings as well. Largely it is composed music, pleasant, but not too pushing the boundaries of avant-garde music.

Percussion focused music / groovy, melodic pieces in my eyes work best (Bell Song, Saturday morning, the old Chi Congo 50, Oasis at Dusk). These songs are performed not as wild as on older records; the percussion instruments create a wide sound, very rhythmic and pulsating. The melodies are simple and enjoyable. It is a refined version of this music, not harming anyone, nice and very uplifting. It seems that Don Moye shared more responsibility for these pieces as they carry his name as composer.

Images of Black Power music shine in pieces featuring Moor Mother / Camea Ayeva (We are on the edge, I greet you with open arms, Mama Koko). She does not sing, she does not cry, but rather recites. The texts deal with the situation of black people in the US and refer to situations today and in the past, but set against a modern-conventional chamber-music background. At first, I was confused as the presentation seems to take the blood and life out of the old style protest songs. Composed strings introduce the title-song: “We are on the edge of victory.” "Victory" seems to mean that black people are now going to colleges and are able to move out of the projects, however, it is not said what we are on the edge of, and at one point it becomes "we are on the edge of open fire. A new hell." Ayeva's words are layered, there are twists and folds. What are the victories then? Once original expectations of old raw protest music is left behind, one can enjoy these refined versions.

Modern chamber music fills the rest of the recording (Jamaican Farewell, Villa Tiamo, Fanfare and Bell, Variations and Sketches from the Bamboo Terrace). Roscoe Mitchell composed Jamaican Farewell for a classical tenor (Rodolfo Cordoba-Lebron) – short interludes in the overall-composition. Many jazz musicians flirt with classical singing, and a short flirt it is here. In all pieces with strings, the orchestration is nice, modern, but not harmonically challenging. Dissonances are there, but swiftly resolved. “Fanfare and Bell” goes the furthest and allows longest frictions, while “Variations” stays blunt quite long and slightly gains through the classical baritone of Cordoba-Lebron. These pieces are new to the world of the Art Ensemble and I have to admit I had my difficulties with them. It is the attempt to extent the bands repertoire to a new field and repeated listening helps enjoying it.

The recording came out as a double CD-Box on PI Recordings / as Double LP (Studio recordings) / Four LP Box (Studio and Live concert), both on Erased Tapes Recordings. The CD-version and the Box contain as extra a live performance of nearly the same ensemble at the time of the recording in Ann Arbor “Live at the Edgefest” at the time of the recording. Both singers/speakers are not participating. The same pieces are performed and one can hear that the ensemble primarily follows the written charts. The live recording offers a very welcome addition of “Tutankhamun” – spirited, groovy and with Mitchell squeaking joyfully against the full ensemble.

In this recording, the old Art Ensemble continues to exist. Both surviving members enjoy the possibility to continue with its old traditions – one rather on the percussive, groovy path (Don Moye), the other with a vision of black, composed music (Roscoe Mitchell). They are older, so why not allow them a more gentrified version of the old uproar. Overall not a recording that pushes the boundaries of modern jazz or music in general, but a pleasant output of a band that has accompanied many of us in most of our active listening-time. Recommended – with above reservations to anyone who is open to enjoy a soothing version of the old anarchic Art Ensemble.


Captain Hate said...

Thanks for this review which confirms why I haven't bought it; there haven't been many I've seen that go into this level of detail about what I consider important. Although I don't think of the recording with Cecil Taylor as the group's swan song, I understand the sentiment.

Stef said...

The album is about everything I fear from an anniversary release. It has nothing to do with what the music originally stood for. I listened to it once, then decided to forget about it. You can take risks and win or fail (as the AEOC is known for) as with all artistic vision. But this album does not take any risks, and that's almost a guarantee for failure.

James Allen said...

Nice review Hinrich;wish I'd seen it before I bought the record!
There are some good things here but I find the tracks with the operatic tenor completely unlistenable. Certainly not the Art Ensemble I've been listening to and enjoying immensely for the last fifty years.
Another one for the charity shop I guess!