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CD Review: Art Ensemble of Chicago, We are on the Edge

Updated: May 8, 2019

By Hrayr Attarian

Art Ensemble of Chicago We Are on the Edge

Roscoe Mitchell – Saxophones

Famoudou Don Moye – Percussion, drums

Nicole Mitchell – Flutes

Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa) – Voice

Christina Wheeler – Electronics, voice

Jean Cook – Violin

Tomeka Reid – Cello

Silvia Bolognesi – Bass

Jaribu Shahid – Bass

Junius Paul – Bass

Edward Yoon Kwon – Viola

Rodolfo Cordova-Lebron – Voice

Hugh Ragin – Trumpets, flugelhorn, Thai bells

Fred Berry – Trumpet flugelhorn

Dudù Kouaté – Percussion

Enoch Williamson – Percussion

Titos Sompa – Percussion

Stephen Rush – Conductor

The groundbreaking quintet Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) arose from the ranks of the city’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). For the intriguing We Are on The Edgewood wind player Roscoe Mitchell and percussionist Famoudou Don Moye have reconstituted the AEC with a number AACM affiliated musicians. The two CD set was recorded in Ann Arbor Michigan in celebration of the AEC’s 50th anniversary and is dedicated to departed members trumpeter Lester Bowie, saxophonist Joseph Jarman and bassist Malachi Favors.

The vibrant and contemplative music flows seamlessly from AEC’s signature angular style to the more emotive and visceral Afro Centric sounds associated with AACM. For example, on the studio session (disc 1), a quartet of rumbling drummers drive “Mama Koko” as vocalist/spoken word artist Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa) recites evocatively her own poem. The band’s percussive punctuations enhance the poignancy of her words about African American history. The track dovetails into the expansive and dramatic “Fanfare and Bell”, with its overlapping delightfully atonal chords. The tune coalesces around cellist Tomeka Reid’s provocative solo.

The highlight of this first set is the fiery and dissonant “Chi-Congo 50”. Flutist Nicole Mitchell’s flute wails with passion and exchanges ardent phrases with Roscoe Mitchell’s evocative and acerbic soprano saxophone. The thundering percussion and high blowing trumpets give the backdrop an intricate, riotous ambience full of intelligence and fury.

The second disc documents a concert Ann Arbor’s Edge fest in October of 2018. The pieces here are interlinked and form a continuous suite. “Oasis at Dusk” opens with hypnotic percussion and cello refrains. Nicole Mitchell and her muscular lithe lines join undulating voices as they soar over the earthy beats in wistful and haunting vamps. Mitchell improvises with captivating complexity and emerging from and returning to the thumping backdrop. Immediately afterwards comes the exuberant “Chi-Congo 50” that features Moye, Enoch Williamson and Titos Sompa for a collective percussion performance.

The focal point of the concert is Favors’ classic “Tutankhamen”. The first segment revolves around a lyrical and pensive bass soliloquy. After a short flute and saxophone refrain there is another crisp and clever bass extemporization that the agile drums and pizzicato cello support. On the second part the bass fades out and the string trio’s melancholic drone fades in to become a stimulating spontaneous instrumental chorus. Free flowing trumpets and other band members join in for a delightfully dissonant abstract conversation.

The large group Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye have assembled for this project not only maintains the excitement and the brilliance of AEC’s work but also infuses it with refreshing relevance. This brilliant album demonstrates that the AEC’s spirit is timeless and lives on unabated despite ephemerality of human life.

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