The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Way Forward

As the avant-garde group turns 50, its two remaining original members have their eyes on the future

The Art Ensemble in 2018 (L to R): Sound engineer Eliel Storey, Moor Mother, Stephen Rush, Silvia Bolognesi, Enoch Williamson, Titos Sompa, Edward Yoon Kwon, Roscoe Mitchell, Fred Berry, Christina Wheeler, Hugh Ragin, Jean Cook, Famoudou Don Moye, Tomeka Reid, Nicole Mitchell, Junius Paul, Jaribu Shahid, road manager Larry Stevenson (photo: Barbara Barefield)

The lineup on the album spans generations, ranging from early collaborators to students and artists inspired by the band. Trumpeter Fred Berry, who worked with Mitchell in his pre-Art Ensemble quartet along with Favors and the late Alvin Fielder, returns to the fold, as do trumpeter Hugh Ragin and bassist Jaribu Shahid (both of whom have worked in Mitchell’s bands for decades) and percussionists Titos Sompa and Enoch Williamson (who have enjoyed similar tenures in Moye’s orbit). Flutist Nicole Mitchell and cellist Tomeka Reid, younger members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians—the organization out of which the Art Ensemble grew—have long been bearers of the torch lit by the Art Ensemble and its Chicago compatriots, while vocalist Rodolfo Cordova-Lebron and poet/musician Moor Mother represent the ensemble’s wider sphere of influence.

“We just combined elements and people and personalities that me and Roscoe have worked with in our own projects,” Moye explains. “We’ve always had a vision for presenting the music in a large format, so this is just a carrying forward of something we’ve always been committed to.”

Bolstering its core lineup is something that the Art Ensemble has done throughout its existence. Tours were undertaken with the addition of Bowie’s band Brass Fantasy or the South African vocal group Amabutho. Cecil Taylor, Don Pullen, and Muhal Richard Abrams, among others, have supplemented the group on recording dates. But the heart of the music was always its five core members, their uncanny chemistry, and an expansive aesthetic forged from converging worldviews and explored during exhaustive rehearsals.

So what does it mean to have an Art Ensemble of Chicago without three of its inimitable personalities? In the opinion of Nicole Mitchell (no relation to Roscoe), Mitchell and Moye have so absorbed the concepts of their former bandmates that the whole still lives on through its remaining parts. Speaking of Jarman, Bowie, and Favors, the former chairwoman of the AACM says, “Moye and Roscoe carry their spirits with them. Especially when we’re playing some of the older Art Ensemble music, we can really feel the vibe heavy.

“In the AACM, we always talk about the idea of ‘a power stronger than itself,’” she continues, recalling the slogan that became the title of George Lewis’ essential history of the organization. “The Art Ensemble represents one of the highest expressions of that. In this case you have a collective of individuals who are all expressing their ultimate individuality as a group.”

In a way, the size of this incarnation of the Art Ensemble seems not only a means to achieve its leaders’ outsized ambitions, but necessary to fill the enormous chasm left by the absence of three towering imaginations. The Art Ensemble was always an act that contained multitudes, able to weave seamlessly between stark minimalism and vaudevillian antics, dense cacophony and profound silence, impish playfulness and weighty aggression. While it may be impossible to recapture that boundless inventiveness with replacements, perhaps it can be approximated by piecing together its various elements from wherever they may be found.

To Tomeka Reid, this manifestation of the Art Ensemble simply represents a continuation of the group’s career-long history of reinvention. “As much as they want to maintain the legacy of the Art Ensemble, Roscoe and Moye don’t want to duplicate what they’ve done in the past. You never feel the weight of the past; there’s no pressure to fill the shoes of Lester or Malachi or Jarman. In line with the spirit of the AACM, they really want everyone to develop their own voice; to just be you in the music.”

We Are on the Edge thus veers between many of the far-flung poles visited by the Art Ensemble throughout its history. The studio album opens with “Variations and Sketches from the Bamboo Terrace,” one of Mitchell’s chamber works for voice. The sparse, atmospheric “Bell Song” casts back to some of the ensemble’s earliest repertoire, while the frenzied percussion of “Chi Congo” is reprised from the album of the same name, recorded in Paris in 1970.

Mitchell adds wistful lyrics to “Jamaican Farewell” from 1998’s Coming Home Jamaica, which also yields a lush arrangement of Bowie’s “Villa Tiamo.” On the title track and “I Greet You With Open Arms,” Moor Mother’s surrealist ferocity channels Jarman’s urgent poetics. Reid convenes a string quartet with violinists Jean Cook and Edward Yoon Kwon and bassist Silvia Bolognesi, while Christina Wheeler adds otherworldly electronic elements to the arsenal.

For Mitchell, it would almost be a betrayal of his lost partners to let the Art Ensemble fade away, given how rare it is for one group to enjoy such longevity and reap its creative rewards. “If you think about Duke Ellington’s orchestra and how long that was together, you definitely get something out of long-term musical relationships with people,” he explains. “There’s just some stuff you’re not gonna know in a day, or a week—or three years. My intention is to take that experience and keep discovering all the different ways of moving it forward.”

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.