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Seventy plus recordings and fifty years since the inception of The Art Ensemble Of Chicago. I mean the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, its original name. Born of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the band sojourned to Paris and soon changed its name to The Art Ensemble Of Chicago to reflect the corroborative process of its members. With the move an enduring quintet was formed with Mitchell, Famoudou Don Moye, Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, and Joseph Jarman. What a ride it must have been to be a listener these first fifty years. The AEC changed jazz, new music, world music, and performance art. Where did you step into the constant river of sound that is the AEC? Was it in the early years documented by Nessa Records, the French label BYG's live European recordings, or the later dates captured by ECM or Japan's DIW Records? Whenever it was, charting the progressions and experimentations could only be amplified if you had the opportunity to hear each disc as it became available. Playing catchup is possible thanks to several reissues which include the massive 21-CD boxset The Art Ensemble Of Chicago And Associated Ensembles (ECM, 2018).
But much like the AACM's theme "Great black music ancient to the future," the 2-CD release We Are On The Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration reignites some AEC classics and sets sail to the future. Recorded at and around the 2018 Edgefest in Ann Arbor, Michigan, this disc is the fourth AEC release by Pi Records and it follows Non-Cognitive Aspects Of The City -Live At Iridium (2006). Gone are Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, and Joseph Jarman. But certainly their spirits live in this expanded lineup, which includes the relatively new AACM members Nicole Mitchell and Tomeka Reid and Mitchell collaborators Hugh Ragin, Jaribu Shahid, and Fred Berry.
The discs are split between a studio session and a live performance. In studio the AEC revisits music from Chi-Congo (Decca, 1972) to Coming Home Jamaica (Atlantic, 1998) and Mitchell's "Bell Song." The studio session boosts the afrofuturist poetry and vocals of Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa) and the lush vocals of Rodolfo Cordova-Lebron. Mitchell flexes his classical leanings alongside minimal soundscapes, percussive excursions, and an eternal groove "Saturday Morning" that lingers long after the music stops.
With this extended ensemble size Moye and Mitchell are in their element, and the live disc, which repeats five compositions from the studio recordings, takes the affair to another level. You come to the realization why the early AEC recordings were live. There was a concerted effort to capture the band's essence, and that is this music is a living entity. Indeed, the set from the Bethlehem Church of Christ in Ann Arbor is as vibrant as any of the music the AEC released these past 50 years. Long live the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Track Listing: CD1: 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; CD2: We Are On The Edge/Cards; Oasis at Dusk; Chi-Congo
50; Tutankhamun; Mama Koko; Saturday Morning; Odwalla/The Theme.
As a songwriter and vocalist, I love jazz for the experience of being in the center of intense creativity. It is the most potent form of music for keeping the artist and the audience in the 'now. Being in the moment is essential for humans, and we need help in learning how to do that. As a songwriter, I need the depth of musicality that jazz voicings can give my stories. My songs seem light and whimsical, but the message is not.
I met my main collaborator, Mark Fitzgibbon, at one of his gigs. I needed to do my first original album, and his playing was masterful, robust, and beautiful. At the time, I didn't realize how suited we were as a team. We're onto our 4rth album together.
My advice to new listeners is to listen to a really clear and simple version of a song so you can then hear what the musicians are doing and enjoy their creativity and musicality. Also, you have to see jazz live to appreciate it fully. You'll never feel it the same way listening to a CD or online. You need the vibration to go through your body to really get it!
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