The Art Ensemble of Chicago in full cry, especially on a 50th-anniversary tour, is a powerful way to kick off a jazz festival. That said, if you have just flown in to Milan from the west coast of the United States and have not slept for 27 hours, the AEC can sound a little harsh. One thing, though: They will keep you awake.
Personnel is fluid in the AEC these days. The septet that played Milan contained two founding members, Roscoe Mitchell (soprano and alto saxophones) and Famoudou Don Moye (drums and percussion). The others were Hugh Ragin (trumpets), Jean Cook (violin), Silvia Bolognesi and Jaribu Shahid (basses), and Dudu Konate (African percussion). The three stringed instruments, with their violin and arco bass drones, imprinted an unfamiliar sonic signature on the Ensemble. AEC is no longer the democratic collective of the old days; it’s Mitchell’s band now. His soprano saxophone outbreaks, storms of lethal lyricism, were the defining extended solos of the night. Ragin was an interesting, contrasting voice of reason but played sparingly. Twice the din coalesced into known AEC themes, “Odwalla” and “Tutankhamun.” The dominant intelligence and energy center was always Mitchell, whose relentless commitment to new forms of beauty is undiminished, 50 years on.