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 newest edition of the Art Ensemble in 2018 at EdgeFest in Ann Arbor, Mich. (photo: Barbara Barefield)

“Forward” is a word that Mitchell and Moye often use. Although the importance of their golden anniversary isn’t lost on them, what occupies their minds is the future. There’s a tour to plan following the release of We Are on the Edge, with the added onus of corralling a larger ensemble than usual, that will take them to such high-profile festivals as Big Ears.

And there’s always the urge to cast one’s gaze wider, to bring more influences into the vast Art Ensemble palette; on the January day that we spoke, Mitchell enthused about both the 17th-century Dutch composer Jacob van Eyck and the contemporary hip-hop star Anderson .Paak. “This thing never stops,” he says. “If you’d told me that 50 years ago, I may not have believed you. But now I see. I’m more excited about learning right now than I’ve ever been in my life.”

While they’ve been involved with such tributes as the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s show commemorating the AACM’s own 50th anniversary, the leaders of the Art Ensemble are largely content to leave the reminiscing to others. ECM has taken on some of that responsibility, reissuing the band’s five albums for the label as well as a number of other recordings involving its members on the sprawling 21-CD box set The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles.

Of course, thinking about one’s legacy is different from simply recalling past glories; it’s an embodiment of the AACM’s familiar slogan, “Ancient to the Future,” a way to examine the ways that the past ripples through and transforms the present.

“I’ve been thinking about our legacy since the first day I met the band,” Moye says with a laugh. “Lester said to me, ‘Hey, do you want to be a part of history? Because if you don’t, then don’t mess with this’—I deleted all the expletives. Of course I wasn’t going to say no. Within our minds, we’re just going forward on the path that was provided to me when I joined the band. I’m happy to say I’m still on the same path.”

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.