Pi Recordings celebrates releases the 50th anniversary of the Art Ensemble of Chicago by releasing the double album We Are on The Edge!

To celebrate both blackness and resistance to society

This title can be read a number of ways. There is a possible subtext of dark times, which is entirely feasible given prevailing events in a post-colonial pro-capitalist world. Yet we are told by the poet Moor Mother, one of many guests of the seminal group that emerged in American music in the late ‘60s, a time when presidents did not tweet and reality TV was still a fantasy, to stand up and fight the power.

What is within touching distance is victory. Which has always been part of the Art Ensemble’s spirit, right from its birth in the crucible of the Association For The Advancement Of Creative Music [AACM]. Message To Our Folks, A Fanfare For The Warriors, and Full Force are just a few of the albums that celebrate both blackness and resistance to a society that tries to silence the ‘loud minority.’


Qwest-TV-Art-Ensemble-ChicagoWatch  The Art Ensemble of Chicago : Swim. A musical adventure on Qwest TV !

This new 2-CD set is the 50th anniversary celebration of the group founded by multi-reedist Roscoe Mitchell and co-led by drummer Famoudou Don Moye. It also counted trumpeter Lester Bowie, saxophonist Shaku Joseph Jarman and bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut in its ranks, and although those dear departed souls are irreplaceable the sprawling cast list has such a wide spread of strong personalities [Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid, Fred Berry, Titos Sompa, Dudu Kouaté, entre autres] it is hard to imagine them not giving a thumbs up from the banks of the Jordan, that most sacred place in black culture.

There is one studio session and one full-length concert recording – at the appropriately named Edgefest, Ann Arbor, Michigan – and all the 19 pieces vividly underline that AEC has a patented musical vocabulary that is nonetheless still a point of departure for new adventures in sound. In real terms that means there are many dense percussive undergrowths in which rustle the Moye-led rhythm section augmented by zestful hand drummers and strings, over which swirl and somersault all manner of gymnastic horn lines, scored and executed with Mitchell’s customary verve.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s own standards

True to its ethos of ‘great black music: ancient to future’ the Ensemble joins tradition and modernity at the hip in arrangements that carry the big band lexicon into energetic new zigzags of melody and bring intricately layered harmonies into balladry that would intrigue many a contemporary electronic composer. Above all there remains an invigorating freshness of thinking when the band revisits some of its classic material such as ‘Chi Congo’, ‘Jamaica Farewell’, and the enduring theme ‘Odwalla’. These compositions make the important point that AEC is able to create standards on its own terms, rather than adhering to a songbook that is deemed great by another self-appointed authority. Having said that, arguing the merits of ‘Odwalla’ against those of ‘My Favourite Things’, for example, is perhaps neither here nor there, because the former, with its haunting downward drift of notes, stands as a great lament in any field of music.

The tidal wave of energy raised by the Ann Arbor concert will be familiar to anybody who has seen the band over the half century of its existence, but it is also a great illustration of how to keep balance and clarity within a 14-piece orchestra, that boasts a mighty three double bass low end. AEC doyen Mitchell still imposes a powerful personality on the music featured on both discs by way of blowing in which his precision of fortissimo phrasing and ability to uncover nuance in the upper register, is ear-catching. Then again the rabble-rousing Moor Mother on the title track is also a major highlight.

The struggle continues

Moor Mother, The Philadelphian writer-activist, whose solo work has made a series of stimulating turns into afro-futurist territory, is nothing if not provocative and perceptive with regard to the dysfunctional, discordant state of the world in the era of Donald Trump, the Me2 movement and the disheartening continuum of oppression that reaches right back to the days of slavery. “Dripping in blood from the rat race, from doing time, from doing plantation time,” she thunders.“Escaping from shutting down and closing up… refusing to create a new workforce… we are on the edge of victory and the choir is singing in the background. We are on the edge of victory!”

In other words the struggle continues, but as AEC intimated five decades ago with the Paris recording of the sublime People In Sorrow there can be no backsliding self-pity on the long, winding road to a new tomorrow.


The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, We are on the Edge (Pi Recordings)

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Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée | With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union