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Saturday, July 15, 2023

Art Ensemble Of Chicago - The Sixth Decade: From Paris To Paris (Live At Sons D’Hiver) (RogueArt, 2023)

By Lee Rice Epstein

Three years ago, Art Ensemble of Chicago released We Are On the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration , a double-album that didn’t quite live up to many reviewers’ expectations (personally, I loved it, but perhaps it doesn’t fit as neatly into the AEOC legacy as was anticipated). We Are On the Edge was “dedicated to Lester Bowie, Shaku Joseph Jarman, and Malachi Favors Maghostut” and celebrated 50 years of the AEOC, one of the most accomplished and transformative creative, collaborative endeavors in perhaps the past 100 years (I don’t think I’m overstating my case here, the influence of the Art Ensemble continues unabated).

Part of what made/makes the Art Ensemble so important is the individual artists’ resistance to stasis. To say, “the Art Ensemble sound” might mean different things to different listeners. For some, it’s going to be rolling percussion and small instruments. For others, it recalls the occasionally clashing aesthetics of its founders, miraculously harmonious. And if the story of the Art Ensemble of Chicago can be told in a series of double live albums, the growth and extension of those aesthetics can be traced over the titular six decades. Starting with Live In Paris, and leading to Urban Bushmen (all-time high point?), Zero Sun No Point (Dedicated To Mynona & Sun Ra) , Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City — Live At Iridium, and now The Sixth Decade: From Paris To Paris. If these albums tell the story of the Art Ensemble, then the story they tell is personal, complex, aspirational, demanding, and thrilling.

Beginning with their earliest albums, the Art Ensemble often felt as if they were skating together on a single blade, piled up and carrying each other, possibly while juggling flaming torches. You had the feeling that the music was held together through momentum and force of will. Gradually, however, stunning relationships between the musicians brought into focus a lovely architecture of communal elements. As David Menestres wrote, in his review of Paul Steinbeck’s Message To Our Folks , “It is this organization, the democratizing of decision making, the pooling of resources, and the dedication to the collective that enabled the Art Ensemble to work and grow for decades. Despite this collective mindset, the musicians never gave up their individual autonomy. The supremacy of the individual to be able to express themselves through music, costume, make up, theatrics, or any other means, while still working within the group, is a large part of why the Art Ensemble has stayed consistently creative for so long.”

Just going by the albums listed above, Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City was a major pivot for the group, the first double-live album following the ascensions of Bowie and Maghostut. This ended up being Jarman’s final recording with the group, and it’s a really nice, if somewhat restrained, album. Bowie’s departure took more from the Art Ensemble than we may have even thought, at the time. In hindsight, revisiting Urban Bushmen for example, a track like “New York Is Full of Lonely People” cuts through the middle of the set. In a way, now, that role has been offloaded to the next generation, artists like Dudù Kouaté, who contributes two compositions to The Sixth Decade. This is crucial because it’s the multiplicity of voices that helped define the Art Ensemble from its inception.

Recorded two years after We Are On the Edge, the group performing on The Sixth Decade feels much more comfortable and looser. The lineup is incredible: Mitchell on sopranino and alto saxes; Moye on drums and percussion; Moor Mother on spoken word; Roco Córdova and Erina Newkirk on vocals; Nicole Mitchell on flutes and piccolo; Hugh Ragin on trumpet, flugelhorn and Thai bells; Simon Sieger on trombone and tuba; Jean Cook on violin; Eddy Kwon on viola; Tomeka Reid on cello; Brett Carson on piano; Silvia Bolognesi, Junius Paul, and Jaribu Shahid on bass; Kouaté, Enoch Williamson, Babu Atiba, and Doussou Touré on percussion; all under the direction of Steed Cowart. If the music was only fine, it would be a monumental achievement. The music is, in my opinion, really excellent.

With Cowart onboard and with Mitchell and Moye now the dominant compositional voices, there is a marked shift in the Art Ensemble’s tonal identity. Cowart directed Mitchell’s albums Littlefield Concert Hall Mills College March 19-20, 2018 and Discussions. And the set opening, “Leola,” comes from Mitchell’s Note Factory book, with the follow-up “Cards,” which dates back to the 1970s. And so the first half, misleadingly, would seem to indicate this is something of a Mitchell set. Arguably, even these few compositions are far from an album like Bells for the South Side—Mitchell really stretches himself and the ensemble, and the accumulation of voices, winds, and strings works exceedingly well in the mix. Ragin blasts a long note at the beginning of “Introduction to Cards,” before leaning into one of Art Ensemble’s most powerful instruments: silence. It’s one Jarman and Moye, in particular, used to great effect throughout their careers. Silence opens the space around the musician, and in the context of the Art Ensemble, seems to expand the circle of participation to include the audience. We become one in those moments. Mitchell follows with a searing solo, the entire stretch a beguiling and compelling performance. It’s the kind of high-wire improvisation that may have been missing from the previous set.

With four additional percussionists, you can feel Moye as a second music director. On Kouaté’s “Ritual ‘Great Black Music,’” the stage opens up for all five percussionists to perform as a chamber unit, leading to “Kumpa/Stormy Weather,” which blends a dozen concepts and voices, Moor Mother’s spoken word interlaced with Kouaté’s singing. Again, the Art Ensemble moves in a few occasionally contrasting directions, which renews the unpredictability that came to define the group in the ’70s and ’80s. If there is less, overall, of the outsider element in the music—nothing like the way Jarman and Maghostut kept things on the edge, so to speak—that’s been somewhat the case since around the mid-’90s, when the Art Ensemble became more of an institution. And, maybe that’s a good thing. Nobody’s shooting starter pistols at the audience anymore, sure, but as Córdova sings on “Funky AECO,” “Please don’t stop the music.”


JG said...

Just wondering, but how prevalent are vocals / spoken word on this release? Thanks.

Gary Chapin said...

I thought this was an exquisite release that, more than any I can think of, brought home the idea of "from the past to the future." Everyone is fantastic, but Moor Mother absolutely scorches. I was more moved by this than I expected.

Lee said...

Hi JG, there is I think slightly less than on the previous album.