Saturday, May 04, 2019

The Art Ensemble of Chicago - We are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration (Pi-Recordings, 2019)

This is a double album commemorating the foundation of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and their groundbreaking trip to Paris to perform and record in 1969. Only two of the original members remain, multi-reedist Roscoe Mitchell and drummer Famoudou Don Moye, but on this album they are joined by a excellent group of fifteen fellow musicians who share the Art Ensemble’s principles. The music is jazz, certainly, but cut with contemporary classical, rhythm and blues, minimalism and world music, and this is especially brought to the fore on the title track “We Are on the Edge” where a spare and open beginning evolves into repetitive strings and the poetry of Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa) who has a wonderful voice, laying down declarative statements that fit in well with the music. She is also key to the following track “I Greet You with Open Arms,” developing a narrative about freedom and unity in the face of adversity that is well framed by the dramatic and skittish backdrop provided by the strings and percussion with occasional brass and reeds. “Chi Congo 50” is the centerpiece of the first disc, evolving from a patient opening section into a wonderful collective improvisation for hand percussion and flutes. This massive percussive eruption is bound by excellent bass playing, that carries the group onward and captures this large version of the ensemble at their best, pulling together a summation of their history and conception as a unit. “Saturday Morning” also uses the strength of the percussion section to excellent effect, building to an improvisation that is akin to something the Sun Ra Arkestra may have developed, interwoven with strengthening threads of bass. Moor returns on “Mama Koko” where her spoken word soloing is accompanied by spiritual sounding flute and drums. Her lyrics are quite moving, as she speaks about the search for lost names and meaning leaning into aspects of afro-futurism while gentle percussion bubbles. Disc two consists of a live recording from the 2018 Edgefest, in Ann Arbor, Michigan and begins with a very long classically tinged piece “We are on the Edge/Cards” before moving into the quite beautiful “Oasis at Dusk.” This performance features alluring drums and percussion along with basses and other strummed instruments and flutes developing and exotic atmosphere. The music echoes throughout the concert hall, developing a voice like quality, building to a spirited flute and bass duet, and then a fine section for flute, percussion and bass framed by nimble strings. The cascading percussion of “Chi-Congo 50” leads into the epic “Tutankhamun” building from flute (Nicole Mitchell is an absolute superstar on this recording) and drums framed by riffing horns and tight bass, leading to nimbly plucked bass and cellos as the long performance takes on a suite like structure with improvisational cells opening up for moaning and chirping strings and expressive saxophones. “Mama Koto” balances sampled voices with mbira and trumpet over a light drumbeat, demonstrating that the group has always had its ear to the ground for worldwide sounds that could be incorporated into its mission statement of “great black music, ancient to the future.” Massive and loudly played percussion usher in “Saturday Morning” yoked together with thick bass, and horns which fall in for an epic free collective improvisation that makes for an exuberant performance. Roscoe Mitchell leads the group out with band introductions and and concluding statement of “Odwalla/Theme” which returns the group back to nearly the beginning. Although this celebrates the past, the music found here is no victory lap, and looks clearly toward the future. By inviting members of different generations of musicians influenced by the group to take part in this project, the surviving members are assured that the influence of the Art Ensemble of Chicago will reach far into the future. We Are On The Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration - amazon.com

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