The Art Ensemble of Chicago ‘We Are On The Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration’ 2CD (Pi Recordings) 5/5

In 1969 the founder members of Art Ensemble Of Chicago decided to relocate to France. in 1968-9, the social unrest in Chicago made it near on impossible for avant-garde musicians to find favour in any venues in Chicago or further afield.

10 years earlier Albert Ayler had been stationed in France whilst serving in the army. His subsequent move to Sweden three years later resulted in a collaboration with avant-garde musicians including Cecil Taylor and Sonny Murray. Sonny Murray recounts astonishment at their first gig in Stockholm where the majority of the audience started to dance as soon as they started playing. Cecil Taylor nearly fell off his seat laughing; in part, taking aback with admiration for the openness and participation from the hip Swedish crowd. It was a far more embracing response than back in the States.

Europe was becoming more attractive for avant-garde jazz musicians. Over the course of their 18 months stay in Paris from 1969-71, The Art Ensemble Of Chicago recorded some landmark albums including ‘People In Sorrow’, ‘Message To Our Folks’, ‘A Jackson In Your House’ and the soundtrack ‘Les Stances a Sophie’, featuring vocalist Fontella Bass. The album was released on NESSA and later reissued by the Sounds Of The Universe record label back in 2000 due to the growing interest from radio and club. After returning to the States in the early 70s, the group went on to record two pivotal albums titled ‘Bap-tizum’ and ‘Fanfare For The Warriors’ for Atlantic Records which allowed for a much wider appreciation.

Fast forward 50 years and The Art Ensemble Of Chicago is still a living testament to the power and support of the musicians and educators within the community. The AACM continue to nurture emerging artists, passing the baton through the generations with their operating motto “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future”. Although the theatrical movements and colourful stage presence is not as prominent, the music continues to represent the attitude that the great quintet brought to the world during their formative years and throughout their time together as well as through their own projects. This new album sees them exploring new boundaries and the possibilities around those boundaries, with real-time composing allowing for many options to reinvent through the diverse musical expression of the collective.

On their first AEOC album for over 10 years, Roscoe Mitchell (soprano and alto saxophone, sopranino) and Don Moye (drums, percussion) pay tribute to their fellow creators Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors from the classic quintet era. Accompanied by a 15-plus ensemble including a conducted string section courtesy of professor Stephen Rush, ‘We Are On The Edge: A 50th Year Anniversary’ brings together a much larger group of musicians from different generations and backgrounds in part celebrating the diverse musical heritage of their community and Chicago. Comprised of two discs: a meticulous studio session and the capture of a rousing live set at Edgefest in Ann Arbor, MI. The album features both original and classic compositions.

The album begins with Roscoe Mitchell’s contemplative composition, ‘Variations and Sketches from the Bamboo Terrace’, featuring the operatic voice of Rodolfo Cordova-Lebron alongside the string section comprising of Tomeka Reid (cello) Jean Cook (violin) and Edward Yoon Kwon (viola). On ‘The Bell Song’ Christina Wheeler adds a range of colourful electronic sounds from her amazing array of instruments, that include the autoharp, Moog and theremin, to accompany the muted trumpet, flute and subtle touches of percussion which permeate this moody composition.

Vocalist poet Camae Ayewa (Moor Mother) delivers a powerful message on the title track, ‘We Are On The Edge’ and ‘Mama Koko’, the latter an evocative probing afrofuturism journey to the homeland with elements of pan-African percussion creating a perfect setting. The space within both compositions allowing the words room to resonate.

Don Moye adds the updated and reshaped hypnotic percussive elements to the original 1972 Malachi Favors composition, ‘Chi Congo’, aptly titled ‘Chi- Congo 50’. Throughout the album, he is joined by the stellar percussionists Dudù Kouaté, Enoch Williamson and Titos Sompa. The wonderful dreamy afro Cuban-esque ‘Oasis At Dusk’ is another percussive highlight – a tapestry of sound that is warm and evocative with the combination of percussion and strings, adding a rich sound to the composition.

Flautist and educator Nicole Mitchell has been involved with some great projects and acts as the first chairwoman within the organisation. Check out her highly acclaimed 2017 album ‘Liberation Narratives’ featuring poet and professor, Haki R. Madhubuti, and also her TEDx talk ‘Connecting To The Source Of Intelligence’ where she also performs alongside vocalist Dwight Trible.

Trumpeter, conductor and educator Fred Berry and trumpeter Hugh Ragin have been long time collaborators with the ensemble. Bassist Jaribu Shahid, is also one of the long-established members who feature within this current ensemble. Joining him are fellow bassists Silvia Bolognesi and Junius Paul.

In summary, ‘We Are On The Edge: A Celebration of 50 Years’ is a fresh chapter in the ever-unfolding of an explorative sound that the collective continues to represent and achieve. Highly recommended.

Mark Jones