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By Neil Tesser
The Art Ensemble of Chicago honors six decades of boundary-shattering creativity with a multi-generational aggregation of musicians.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago, and that band’s parent organization, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, have never shied from iconoclasm. Since the Art Ensemble’s birth in 1968, they have challenged and upended jazz fundaments such as small-band instrumentation and harmonic hegemony; the place where rhythm originates within a band; the place of previous rhythmic traditions (i.e. “swing”) at all — even the concept of performance decorum, thanks to their delightfully motley array of stage attire. Above all, the Art Ensemble, and the AACM in general, have come to symbolize ongoing innovation and relentless reinvention.
Case in point: the orchestra heard on the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s latest double-disc, The Sixth Decade, From Paris to Paris, recorded at a February 2020 performance at the Sons d’Hiver festival. Released this year on the French label Rogue Art, the album documents a 20-person ensemble impelled by the Art Ensemble’s surviving members, the saxophone scientist Roscoe Mitchell and the percussion shaman Famoudou Don Moye. The lineup blossoms into a quartet of strings, several vocalists and a raft of percussionists; like any true orchestra, this one peforms under the direction of a separate conductor. The album title refers to the fact that, having celebrated the AEC’s 50th anniversary in 2018, Mitchell and Moye aren’t ready to collect their gold watches quite yet.
Still, you ask: a 20-piece Art Ensemble of Chicago?
Here’s the thing: The Art Ensemble of Chicago exists anywhere, and in any form, that Mitchell and Moye determine. Those of us who think of the AEC as a specific quintet that emerged in Chicago in the 1960s — or even as the quintet that carried on with younger players, after the departures of its other founders — have missed the point.
Moye is 77 and Mitchell turns 83 in August, but they considered the future of the AEC when they were much younger men. “We talked about all that when everybody was alive,” says Mitchell, who long ago earned the right to a monomial; mention “Roscoe” to anyone affiliated with new music of the 20th and 21st centuries, and they will immediately know who you mean. “We were saying, like, ‘When the band is down to one person, that’s the Art Ensemble of Chicago.’ We not only practiced every day, we made plans for how we would like to see the thing evolve. So those are the seeds.”
In other words, think of the Art Ensemble less as a band than a concept — a philosophy of creative music, perhaps even a frame of mind, that can extend to varying sizes. On The Sixth Decade, the AEC incorporates an oceanic range of compositions, most of them credited to Mitchell and Moye — many of which spotlight individual sections and soloists — as well as intoxicating contributions from the poet-activist known as Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa). The ensemble produces a double rainbow of colors and moods. It includes longtime associates, trumpeter Hugh Ragin and bassist Jaribu Shahid; more recent colleagues, flutist Nicole Mitchell and bassist Junius Paul; and even newer associates, such as vocalist and composer Roco Córdova, who studied with Mitchell at Mills College in Oakland, California. “It’s just those seeds that are developing,” says Mitchell who, by dint of experience and his own nature, gives them plenty of space to grow.
In order for the original Art Ensemble to survive, he explains, “We had to become a collective, because people were contributing more than a great percentage to what was going on. We had to pool our money. When we had a gig, we put a certain amount of money in for different things that we needed, like another vehicle or this, that or the other. Everybody would get some money, but we’d keep some in a pot that kept our projects going.
“Lester Bowie — what a thinker! Always positive, full of ideas! — took an ad out in the Chicago Defender [at one time the largest Black-owned newspaper in the country] that said ‘Musician Sells Out,’ and what he was doing was selling all of his worldly possessions to take the band to Europe.” This was in 1968, when trumpeter Bowie, Mitchell, reedist-flutist Joseph Jarman and bassist Malachi Favors moved to Paris, and what had been the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble became the Art Ensemble of Chicago, its collective nature reflected in the leaderless name of the band.
Mitchell has maintained this spirit of collectivism in the vast majority of his projects, including the large-ensemble version of the AEC led by Moye and himself. “Roscoe Mitchell is that rare type who wakes up every morning ready to share with others, one who understands that sharing is a two-way street,” observes trumpet player Nate Wooley in his online magazine Sound American. That description certainly applies to the methodology of The Sixth Decade and its similarly instrumented predecessor, the roundly acclaimed We Are on the Edge (2019).
Tomeka Reid, the cellist, composer and recently minted MacArthur Fellow, first worked with Mitchell in the mid-2010s and has played on the two large-ensemble orchestral records. “Roscoe definitely has a concept, of course, but he’s flexible. So you want to honor that concept, but also be yourself,” she notes. Musicians with the stature of Mitchell and Moye could be forgiven for dictating the way a small orchestra should play their music, but Mitchell doesn’t work that way: Within a given piece, several players may have leeway to shape the performance. Still, Reid points out, “He always reminds us about silence and how, if you’re going to interrupt it, you better have something to say.”
Roco Córdova, Mitchell’s former student at Mills, concurs when he says, “We rehearse the things that Roscoe or Moye want for sure to go into the concert, and then we also make space to just rehearse improvising together, as a collective. So we always make space for those two approaches, the stuff that’s written — or that has been orally taught to the other musicians — and the things that we just make on the fly. But of course we practice how to do that as an ensemble.” The AEC experience has allowed Córdova to stretch his operatically rich countertenor voice, and also shaped the music he writes. “I was a very pen-and-paper kind of composer, very focused on writing scores and chamber music and just being ‘a composer.’ But having gone on this journey, I’m a different person now; improvisation has become a central focus of what I do.”
As musical agriculturists, Mitchell and Moye have planted seeds that have born plenty of fruit in terms of the Art Ensemble’s continuing legacy, but also in Roscoe’s own biography, and in the coalescence of this particular iteration of the AEC.
“What I like is when you don’t have to do anything and things just fall into place,” he says, with the proviso that these moments of synchronicity result from having done the initial work in the first place. “Another policy of the AEC, we never went out looking for people to play with. We let those people be drawn to us.” Jarman was one of those people; he gravitated to the Mitchell Art Ensemble after the breakup of his own quartet, following the devastating deaths of two of his bandmates. And Moye first encountered Mitchell’s quartet when the band played in Detroit, before decamping for Paris; once they arrived, they found Moye already living there, and Mitchell soon invited him to fill out the then drummerless band.
Mitchell’s move toward orchestral music offers another example of things “falling into place.” When he received an invitation to perform at the 2016 Tectonics Festival in Iceland, he hit on the idea of transcribing and orchestrating several improvisations recorded a few years earlier with pianist Craig Taborn and percussionist Kikanju Baku; the project was released on the Wide Hive label as Conversations I and Conversations II. “Turning those into pieces for orchestra gives me two bases for studying music, both in real time and then also in a slowed-down version of taking the transcriptions and developing them. So, in that way, it helps me to learn faster what I need to do. That’s the way things come together. I mean, why go out trying to reinvent the wheel when the wheel’s already there?”
The connections extend to several younger musician-composers who helped with the transcriptions and offered ideas on the orchestration, and to Wide Hive producer Gregory Howe, connections that evolved from Mitchell’s well-tended roots system. The success of that first such effort, issued as Discussions in 2017, paved the way for the band assembled by Mitchell and Moye to mark the AEC’s sixth decade. “I think that if you work hard enough to align yourself with people that are thinking the same way that you are, then you don’t have to do anything at all,” Mitchell says, his speech quickening with the simple magnitude of his message. “So I don’t see it as something that just fell out of the air and came together.”
While future concerts by this band will likely take place, they don’t currently appear to hold pride of place, at least for Mitchell. “I’m a painter right now,” he tells me.
Certainly, the original Art Ensemble would qualify as “visual artists,” not only because of their costumery and face paint, but also for their manipulation of tonal colors, from the profusion of reed instruments to the astonishing range of effects emanating from Bowie’s trumpet to the myriad small percussion instruments and noisemakers played by all of them.
But when Mitchell states, “I’m a painter right now,” he speaks quite literally. After retiring from his longtime position at Mills College, he returned to creating the vibrantly colorful paintings that he began creating in the ’60s, a passion that he later put aside as the AEC grew in importance. He has several times told of how music came from his father’s side of the family — he first heard ’50s jazz on “stacks of 78s” owned by his stepbrother — while his interest in visual art came from his mother’s side. “My uncle Charles Commodore Carter made up this magazine, almost like a comic book, of my sister and myself and our friends as being these people from outer space and so on.” (Uncle Charles used a metal protractor to scrape flakes of color off the crayons, then blended those into custom hues for his drawings, an improvisational device within a different medium from music.)
The recordings of The Sixth Decade and We Are on the Edge bracket the COVID-19 pandemic that all but eliminated real-time artistic collaboration of any kind. Mitchell responded at the easel, a decision writ large in the 2023 exhibition of his art at the Chicago gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey (co-run by critic and longtime new-music chronicler John Corbett). The exhibit catalog contains about a dozen paintings from the 1960s — the best known of which adorns the cover of the AEC’s album The Third Decade — and then, after a gap of a half-century, close to 90 works painted from 2020 to the present, a daunting output even in the career of a musician as prolific and investigatory as Mitchell.
But of course, the music remains. When we spoke, Mitchell looked forward to an upcoming orchestral performance of his iconic composition “Nonaah” in New York, and more AEC concerts with Moye are not out of the question; in fact, he and Moye were preparing for their early May appearance at the Long Play Festival in Brooklyn, with a program dedicated to fallen comrades Bowie, Jarman and Favors. “You know, I’m not stopping,” Mitchell says, in what could also be the AEC’s motto. “That’s what’s exciting about it to me. Every day that I can learn something it’s a good day. Sonny and Cher were right: The beat goes on — with or without you.”
Featured photos by Michel Robert.