Bassist Malachi Favors, trumpeter Lester Bowie and saxophonist Joseph Jarman have all passed on, leaving the Art Ensemble Of Chicago's remaining original members, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and drummer Famoudou Don Moye, to rebuild. We Are on the Edge is a double-CD package; it is a fifty-year celebration of the group, and a dedication to the departed members of the seminal offshoot of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). It is not a project that bears a clear resemblance to the past music of AEoC. While still deeply entrenched in the avant-garde, Mitchell and Moye now serve as composing figureheads of an eclectic big band.
The seventeen-piece orchestra includes familiar names such as flautist Nicole Mitchell and cellist Tomeka Reid. Bassist Jaribu Shahid joined AEoC on their last studio album, replacing Favors on Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City (Pi Records, 2006). Trumpeter Corey Wilkes, who replaced Bowie on that same album, is himself replaced here by Hugh Ragin and Fred Berry. The ensemble includes a small string section, four percussionists (including Moye), electronics, and several musicians who also contribute vocals.
The two-disc set consists of a studio album, and a live performance recorded in an Ann Arbor, Michigan, church in 2018. "Jamaican Farewell" (Parts 1 and 2) are from the album Far Side (ECM, 2007) by Roscoe Mitchell's Note Factory. Here, the formerly instrumental piece, split and bookending the fully-orchestrated "Villa Tiamo" and percussive "Saturday Morning," features vocalist Rodolfo Cordova-Lebron. As he does on the opening track, "Sketches from the Bamboo Terrace," Cordova-Lebron uses an operatic inflection to the backdrop of flowing strings. The ensemble covers AEoC compositions "Chi-Congo" (with live and studio versions), "Tutankhamun" and "Oddwalla." "Chi-Congo 50"in its live variation, holds fairly true to the original, but without some of the literal bells and whistles. "Oddwalla" similarly reflects the past but the instrumentation gives it a fresh feel; Favors' "Tutankhamun"one of their earliest recordingsis almost twenty-minutes of enigmatic and slow-building dramatic artistic expression.
We Are on the Edge is not likely to be warmly embraced by all AEoC fans, though it carries many of the cerebral and spirited characteristics of the original group. The emphasis on vocalizing has not been a dominant feature of AEoC since 1970 when Bowie's late wife, Fontella Bass, had recorded two albums with the group. The strings take the element of theatricality in an entirely different direction, when compared to the familiar war paint. Fifty years on, Mitchell and Moye have earned the right to institute radical changes, but this new direction for the Art Ensemble isn't likely to be on a long road.
Track Listing: CD 1:
Variations and Sketches from the Bamboo Terrace; Bell Song; We Are on the Edge; I Greet You with Open Arms; Chi-Congo 50; Jamaican Farewell Part I; Villa Tiamo; Saturday Morning; Jamaican Farewell Part II; Mama Koko; Fanfare and Bell; Oasis at Dusk.
We Are on the Edge/Cards; Oasis at Dusk; Chi-Congo 50; Tutankhamun; Mama Koko; Saturday Morning; Odwalla/The Theme.
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