Power Players

David Grundy on The Art Ensemble of Chicago at Fifty

Art Ensemble of Chicago 50th Anniversary. Barbican Centre, November 23, 2019. Photo: Mark Allan / Barbican.

FROM ITS FOUNDATION IN 1969, the Art Ensemble of Chicago was always more than “jazz,” more than a quintet, and more than the sum of its parts. Like the slogan of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) from which it emerged, the group has been “a power stronger than itself.” Its flexible approaches to ensemble-building and to ways of thinking collectively have taken its musicians from early days, scraping it together in post–May ’68 Paris, to sold-out gigs in concert halls around the world. While predecessors such as Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane had played on an array of horns, the ensemble took multi-instrumentalism to a new level, equipped with a dazzling array of additional percussion, “little instruments” (from harmonicas to kalimbas, slide whistles to sirens), horns, and vocal interjections.

Now that all but two of its five founders, Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye, have passed on, the band has matched that old textural richness by bringing in a variety of new members and guests. At their fiftieth-anniversary show at the London Jazz Festival on November 23, the face paint, the Dada theatrics, and the majority of the little instruments were absent. Instead, the group resembled something like a chamber orchestra, counting no less than six string players in its ranks. The gig began with the players standing in silence, facing stage left, before Mitchell—who acted as music director—struck a bell, cuing them into a dark-toned string drone, shaded with somber hues reminiscent of composer, accordionist, and sometime Mitchell collaborator Pauline Oliveros. This prelude created a space for the group to gather and reflect, a ritual summoning of past and future ghosts: as the title of AACM founder Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1975 album has it, “things to come from those now gone.” As the drone gave way to staggered improvisations for horns and strings, Mitchell guided it all with a light touch, his arms folded or hands in his pockets, variously sitting, standing, and walking the width of the wide stage, whispering instructions in the players’ ears. Sober, careful, perhaps a little tentative, this was improvisation that often sounded composed—a quality Mitchell has called an ideal musical state.

Art Ensemble of Chicago 50th Anniversary. Barbican Centre, November 23, 2019. Photo: Mark Allan / Barbican.

The audience got a taste of the ensemble’s range with the night’s second piece, a more traditional showcase for guest saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, who lit up the stage with a groove-driven slow burner of a solo in the vein of 1970s Archie Shepp and of Chicago saxophonists Ed Wilkerson and Fred Anderson—that same infinitely sustained explosion, that same relaxed intensity. But Mitchell’s own solo manifested intensity of a very different kind. Peeling the paint and shattering the glass, his abrasive overtone squawk blared into the Barbican Centre’s resonantly echoing concert hall, swooping, diving, and stumbling into stratospheric realms. In Nathaniel Mackey’s 2008 jazz novel Bass Cathedral, the author hypothesizes that Mitchell’s saxophone sounds so eerie because it cackles with “a ‘trumpeted’ sense of urgency, seizure, stampede.” The two poles of his style—“bluster, yes, and blare,” on the one hand, and an “otherwise quietist impulse, annoyed, it seems, at the very need to make sound”—inform the ensemble’s conception of music as a whole. Space-filling textural density is a hair’s breadth away from space-building silence; the meditative opening drone of the first act was totally of a piece with Mitchell’s endless runs—circularly breathed and deliriously precise.

The ensemble hasn’t lost its gift for catchy, often joyous themes. At the Barbican, the eponymous opening track of their 1969 album Tutankhamun was rearranged in a low register for tuba and strings. It rumbled with a tight-lipped growl, its usual cool strut now an oaken swagger. Following this, guest cellist and singer Abel Selaocoe combined didgeridoo-like throat singing with soaring melismata, which gave way to a tinkling piano solo played over a percussion groove—all major-key sunshine. But it was the next piece, a solo from long-time Mitchell associate Hugh Ragin that was the highlight of the night. The trumpeter’s rough squealing reached up to the ceiling, channeling Lester Bowie with high-pitched single tones, smears, and voiced multiphonics. Backstage, Ragin told a small group of us that he learned many of these techniques from legendary Duke Ellington trumpeter Cat Anderson. In Amiri Baraka’s phrase, he plays “in the tradition,” but, with consummate skill and grace, he took this tradition somewhere else. Ragin was succeeded by pianist Brett Carson, whose move from Jean Barraqué–esque staccato dissonance to jazzier hand scamper ushered in a truly astonishing passage of Mitchell’s circular breathing, which, almost imperceptibly, dragged the whole ensemble into its maelstrom. At moments like this, their music inhabits a space of generative contradiction: The only phrase I can think of to sum up its collective impact is bottom-heavy levitation. Undergirded by the thuds of multiple basses, with everyone playing at once, this was truly ecstatic: How could you not nod your head? As with virtually every Art Ensemble gig since 1972, the night drew to a close with the group’s theme, “Odwalla,” over which Mitchell called out the musicians’ names, his tone wry and sprightly, and it ended with a funky slap-bass encore. They must have played “Odwalla” hundreds of times in performance, and it hasn’t staled a bit.

Art Ensemble of Chicago 50th Anniversary. Barbican Centre, November 23, 2019. Photo: Mark Allan / Barbican.

But despite the reassuring familiarity of the finale, this gig was really about introducing us to the new. Beyond its numerous recordings and performances, the ensemble’s legacy resides in the lasting impact the group’s sound has had on younger players, and the success of this show owed in no small part to its younger guests: Hutchings (from the London-based quartet Sons of Kemet), cellist Tomeka Reid, and bassist Silvia Bolognesi. Now that the Art Ensemble has become any number of flexible groupings that still compel us to listen, its long-term social project—the collective negotiation of sameness in difference (or, in Mitchell’s words, “how to band together and make a way when there is no way”)—has come into relief as its most abiding lesson.