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The Art Ensemble of Chicago on the Past and Future of Their ‘Great Black Music’

Ahead of a 50th-anniversary album, co-founder Roscoe Mitchell and new collaborator Moor Mother reflect on the legendary avant-garde collective’s illustrious history and recent rebirth

The Art Ensemble of Chicago

Art Ensemble of Chicago co-founder Roscoe Mitchell (front, left), and new recruit Moor Mother (standing, second from left), reflect on the group's 50-year avant-garde legacy.

Barbara Barefield

Fifty years after the Art Ensemble of Chicago first became an internationally known force in avant-garde music, co-founder Roscoe Mitchell has no plans to make any major changes to the group’s working method, which unifies musical strands ranging from deep blues and heavy funk to rigorous composition, ritualistic soundscapes and beyond under the tagline “Great Black Music — Ancient to the Future.”

“We worked on our music and we kind of let the other stuff fall in line on its own, and that’s worked up to this point,” the 78-year-old says, speaking by phone from his current home in California. “The Art Ensemble always said that if it gets down to just one person, then that’s the Art Ensemble, so I’m just gonna stay with that kind of thinking.”

He’s referring to the fact that of the five members who made up the group’s classic quintet incarnation, intact from 1970 through 1993, only two are left: himself, one of the world’s foremost improvisers on a variety of reed, wind and percussion instruments and an accomplished, highly advanced composer, and Don Moye, whose self-styled Sun Percussion encompasses top-flight jazz drumming as well as African and Caribbean styles. 

The group grew out of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a Chicago composers collective co-founded in 1965 by the late pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, who Mitchell deems “a mentor to me and so many other musicians.” Along with future avant-garde legends Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith and Anthony Braxton — a Pulitzer winner, Pulitzer finalist and NEA Jazz Master, respectively — the AACM included trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors and multi-instrumentalist Joseph Jarman, each a virtuoso with a thirst for experimentation. Coming together first under Mitchell’s leadership, and evolving into a cooperative unit, Mitchell, Bowie, Jarman and Favors made their way to Paris in 1969 and soon took on the Art Ensemble of Chicago name.

By the next year, they had met Moye, a Rochester-born drummer who was then living in France, and begun honing their sui generis multimedia approach. Ever since, they’ve traversed the full spectrum of black music, and moods ranging from somber to slapstick. Their shows have often taken the form of elaborate happenings, complete with costumes, face paint and a stageful of instruments.  

Bowie, Favors and Jarman died in 1999, 2004 and this past January, respectively. While the group has remained sporadically active with various new collaborators, it hasn’t released a new album since 2006. Now, though, the Art Ensemble are in the midst of a bright new phase, with younger musicians expanding the band into a mini orchestra. One new recruit is Moor Mother, a poet and experimental musician whose work spans abrasive, abstracted hip-hop and protest-minded free jazz. Her engrossing, incisive recitation lies at the center of “We Are on the Edge,” the title track of the group’s first proper studio album in 15 years, out on Pi Recordings — which has released albums by the Art Ensemble and its various members and associates since the early 2000s — on April 26th.

Though the album bears a dedication to Bowie, Favors and Jarman, and the subtitle A 50th Anniversary Celebration, this piece, like the album as a whole, shows just how committed the group remains to looking ahead rather than backward. Featuring music by Mitchell, the piece reflects his extensive classical background, sounding more orchestral than anything from the Art Ensemble’s past. It begins with a soft, searching trumpet line, answered by gradually emerging brass, string and flute lines. Around the three-minute mark, the instrumental textures grow more dense and active, and basses and cellos begin plucking out a steady rhythmic vamp.

Moor Mother enters, declaiming her own passionate poetry, part written and part improvised in the studio. “We are on the edge of victory,” she proclaims as a refrain. In between, she paints a rueful composite portrait of the black American experience: “All them sit-ins and daughters graduating from black colleges only to return to the projects to gather the family out”; “… dripping in blood from the rat race, from doin’ time, from doin’ plantation time”; “… on the edge of Mammy’s head, fresh from all the sweat from escaping from the sexual advances of Mister, and his master’s clock.” 

Moor Mother met Mitchell backstage at an experimental-music festival in Riga, Latvia, in 2017. Mitchell’s niece had tipped him off about Moor Mother, and Moor Mother had been a fan of the Art Ensemble, finding their classic 1973 album Fanfare for the Warriors, which featured Muhal Richard Abrams as a guest, particularly inspirational. Later, Mitchell invited her to participate in the upcoming album and sent her a demo of what would become “We Are on the Edge.”

“It’s significant what she’s saying, what she’s writing,” Mitchell says of Moor Mother. “She’s a very good writer and a very good deliverer of her poetry.”

Moor Mother says she put the words for “We Are on the Edge” together on the way to the session, feeling a combination of nervousness and excitement. She found herself reflecting on the Art Ensemble’s legacy and the group’s place in the broader pantheon of American music.

“I really wrote that on the plane and on the way to the studio,” Moor Mother explains via phone from her home in Philadelphia. “I had just been immersed in myself and the world, so that just was the feeling that came out of me, that we are on the edge. We are almost there, all the work that you did, all the work Lester Bowie did, all these people that have passed that have been pillars in what we call African-American classical music. So it just felt so fitting for me coming into that: ‘We are on the edge/We are on the edge of victory.’ We’re so close, kind of like that.”

After she delivered her words in the studio, performing live with the ensemble, her nerves quickly gave way to elation.

“Just going into the control room and watching Roscoe’s face so intently listening to every word, I was just freaking out — I went outside to have a smoke,” she recalls. “Because I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t deal.’

“And then I come back, and another brother’s on the couch and he just yells out, ‘We are on the edge!'” she continues, sounding awed at the memory. “And then Don Moye yelled it out, and they were just speaking it like, ‘Yes! Yes!’ And I mean, I could have cried right there if I didn’t hold it on, because it’s hard being a black woman poet that’s not in the spoken word realm. And for someone that’s so important to me musically, for a couple of them, to even just champion what I was saying, and saying it was on-point, it made my life, you know? It just gave me all the confidence, and just everything that I needed that I wasn’t getting from the so-called music world.”

Art Ensemble of Chicago, with Roscoe Mitchell, Famoudou Don Moye and their invited guests record in

Moor Mother recording with the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Photo: Barbara Barefield

Moor Mother is just one of many newer Art Ensemble collaborators featured on We Are on the Edge. Others include flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Junius Paul, all younger members of the AACM, and bassist Jaribu Shahid, who has worked with Mitchell since the early Eighties and joined the Art Ensemble following Favors’ death. The album covers an appropriately vast amount of stylistic ground, from the contemplative art song of opener “Variations and Sketches From the Bamboo Terrace,” featuring operatic vocals by Rodolfo Cordova-Lebron, to the vibrant, near psychedelic Afro-Cuban chamber jazz of “Oasis at Dusk,” along with new versions of older AEOC pieces such as Moye’s mesmerizing percussion-driven “Chi-Congo” and Lester Bowie’s warm, lyrical “Villa Tiamo.”

When asked about the album’s largely forward-looking perspective, with some of the most prominent roles given to younger artists, Mitchell says it reflects his present enthusiasm for his chosen discipline.

“Hey, I’m more excited about music right now than I’ve ever been in my life,” he says. “There’s so much going on. I would like to be a part of that. So, yeah, I’m trying to keep one foot in front of the other in terms of what’s going on musically here. I think that this group comes from all the work that has been done previously in the past, with the beginning of the AACM and the members of this group that are second-generation AACM members and other musicians that I’m putting together.”

As engaged as Mitchell is with the future — having just performed at Knoxville’s Big Ears, the group is looking ahead to other performances both in the U.S. and internationally — he says he keeps the past in mind too.

“They visit me often in dreams,” he says when asked how present the Art Ensemble’s bygone members are in his mind these days. “There’s never gonna be another Lester Bowie or Malachi Favors or Joseph Jarman. They had a profound meaning on my life. I feel honored to have been able to share some time with them.”

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