AACM Great Black Music Festival
The second half of the program featured New York's S.E.M. Ensemble playing Nonaah and Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City with bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck shining through the first piece and Buckner returning to deliver Mitchell's fellow Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Joseph Jarman's verse for the second. Both pieces had a wonderfully gradual way of building and, especially in the case of the second, came off as being informed by free improvisation even though they were through-composed. They shared a quality of running multiple streams of information, rivulets meeting and separating again.
Working as both performer and composer has been key to the AACM philosophy since the beginning, when Muhal Richard Abrams (who founded the Experimental Big Band that eventually gave birth to the organization) would require all members to bring compositions to the rehearsals. So it was nicely appropriate that Ars Nova included two features on members as composers.
The final night featured the Collide saxophone quartet playing "Background," an unrecorded work by Threadgill originally written for the ROVA sax quartet. It's an unusual piece, not immediately recognizable as Threadgill (whose is generally so enigmatic) and it features the soprano (played with finesse here by Jeff Hudgins), an instrument the composer has rarely if ever played publicly. While the layering of near repetitions bore something of the composers trademark style, it didn't have the cries and attacks so familiar in his work, and was all the more engaging for the difference.
The quartet piece was followed by an improvised set by two younger players with AACM connections, guitarist Jeff Parker and drummer Mike Reed. They pushed the music consistently yet played it with ease, as if they were evaluating and ranking two dozen brands of butter. Reed was solid and full, taking some melodic turns with bowed cymbals, while Parker was consistently calibrating, trying things and reevaluating. They've played together often, but still seemed to keep daring and tugging at each other.
Prior to their set, they engaged in an open conversation with journalist David Adler, which proved to be a candid and informal report on the current state of the organization.
"It's a great old house but the plumbing hasn't been done in years and the wiring is all messed up and after a while you've patched up all you can," said Reed, who served as the AACM's vice chair from 2009 until earlier this year. "There's a difficulty with trying to re-imagine what the organization is supposed to be about and what it can be about."
There's something of a generation gap in the group, he explained, with different understandings about how to use the Internet and how and where to book performances and a general lack of agreement on the relevance of being entirely self-reliant in a very different world than that of 1965.
"A lot of older members are still fixed to that older idea and if you can't let go of that older idea, it can't grow," he said.
Much could be pulled from (or projected onto) their appearance at and placement within the festival. Following two weekends by members of the first generation, these perhaps third wave players closing the festival clearly stated a positive coda that the reigns are not being left to fall slack. At the same time, however, it would be hard to call the duo an AACM band. Parker has a long tenure with former co-chair Ernest Dawkins (next year will mark his 20th anniversary with Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble) but has never been a formal member of the organization. And Reed, although a former executive with the organization, doesn't present himself as wholly a part of it as such past members as Lester Bowie or Mwata Bowden or even Dawkins have. Which is perhaps a sign of the times.
The organization was born at a time of liberation struggle and group and party identity, when "membership card" didn't mean American Express. The current day is more about the individual than the coalition. It may be that it's a model that's outmoded: Artists can book their tours and record and distribute their music on their laptops now. But it might be just as true that the fact that these musicians, young and old, have a name recognition to bank on, that the idea of "Great Black Music" as a reference point has a place within the jazz conversation, and that an organization in Pennsylvania devotes five nights and considerable energy and resources to celebrating the AACM achievement, all are a measure of 45 years of success.