Graded on a Curve:
The Art Ensemble
of Chicago,
We Are on the Edge

The cover of The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s We Are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration states that it is dedicated to departed members Lester Bowie, Shaku Joseph Jarman, and Malachi Favors Maghostut, so one could be forgiven for anticipating that the atmosphere would be an inviting but relatively safe blend of celebration and tribute. However, that’s not how surviving members Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye operate. Released on 2CD in April by Pi Recordings, the essence of the two hour-plus runtime is effectively explicated in its title. A 2LP with the studio half of this set hit racks on July 26 via Erased Tapes. On August 9, the 4LP box arrives, and for fans, it’s the one to get.

The work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago was, alongside that of saxophonist-composer Anthony Braxton, pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith, and saxophonist-composer Henry Threadgill, the highest profile byproduct of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, or AACM, an organization formed in Chicago in 1965 that continues to exist to this day.

After percussionist Famoudou Don Moye joined in 1970 (during the group’s stay in Paris) the Art Ensemble’s lineup remained essentially static (with occasional additions) for over 20 years, up to Jarman’s temporary retirement 1993. Bowie passed in 1999 and Favors in 2004. Jarman returned to the group the previous year and plays on Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City: Live at the Iridium, which came out in 2006.

We Are on the Edge was recorded from October 16-20 of 2018 as part of the annual Edgefest in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Jarman died on January 9 of this year. That he does not appear on these recordings initially deepens the sadness stemming from the loss of another brilliant improvisor, but this reality is ultimately offset by the assured vision articulated by the personnel assembled by Mitchell and Moye.

It is a group that with Mitchell, Moye, and conductor Stephen Rush totals 18, a number considerably larger than the quintet lineup that came to define the Art Ensemble over the decades (the incarnation that’s being celebrated here), though the collective personality of the Art Ensemble doesn’t get obscured. Rather, it stands as a unique entry in the AEoC’s oeuvre.

As it did on the canonical Art Ensemble recordings, the individualism of the artists does shine through. And after ample time spent with these two sets of music, it becomes abundantly clear; We Are on the Edge reaches back to the founding spirit of the AACM, with the Art Ensemble of Chicago now more than ever a shape-shifting organism exuding fresh energy and pointing emphatically ahead.

This straddling of past and future has long been a bedrock component in the Ensemble’s approach, but it’s magnified here through those invited to play. Amongst the assembled are flautist-composer Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid, violinist Jean Cook, bassist Silvia Bolognesi, and on a variety of instruments including voice, Array mbira, autoharp, Moog, sampler, and electronics, Christina Wheeler.

Representation is a deliberate maneuver, with the number of skilled women contributing to these recordings refreshing, but it doesn’t stop there, as Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa) delivers an injection of spoken word-poetics that’s sturdy and vital (indeed, explicitly referenced in the recording’s title) without going overboard with the syllabic spillage.

Extending the tradition of the great Black Consciousness writers-reciters while cultivating her own sensibility (which extends from the terrific Irreversible Entanglements and other outfits) with a focus on optimism, she contrasts markedly with the operatic delivery of Rodolfo Córdova-Lebron as heard in the two parts of “Jamaican Farewell.” They contrast markedly but productively, as the diversity of style fits the Art Ensemble’s modus operandi to a T.

This range is well-represented across both the studio and live performance halves of We Are on the Edge, as classic pieces like “Chi-Congo” (here “Chi-Congo 50”) and “Tutankhamun,” both originating from the group’s insanely fertile Parisian period, mingle and to an extent take a back seat to a Classically compositional string-based richness that emphasizes the strengths of the assembled players (violist Edward Yoon Kwon and bassists Jaribu Shahid and Junius Paul complete the string and bass sections) rather than simply running laps on the anniversary “avant-garde greatest hits” course.

I won’t deny that my favorite moments here are those that lean toward the jazzier side of the spectrum, but in fact there are multiple enriching entry points, including Wheeler’s electronic input, which really thrives in live performance as it brings an additional layer of (non-cheesy) newness to the Art Ensemble’s thing.

Nearer to the core of the AEoC’s stylistic thrust is the liveliness of percussion as executed by Moye, Dudù Kouaté, Enoch Williamson, and Titos Sompa. And hey, there was a time where this “little instruments” approach kinda lingered into the territory of schtick (not a terrible schtick, mind you, but still), and yet that’s not at all the case here as assorted shakers, bells, gongs, and even tuned brass bowls get played.

And y’know, we haven’t even specifically touched on the Art Ensemble’s concept of Great Black Music – Ancient to Future yet. Spotlighting the duo of trumpeter-flugelhornists Hugh Ragin and Fred Berry does help to illuminate this aspect of the AEoC’s aesthetic, as they are both veterans; particularly in the case of Berry, who as the very useful artist biographies on Pi Recordings’ website inform, is one of the few musicians still living who played with the Basie Orchestra when the Count was alive.

We Are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration both defies and exceeds expectations as it digs into tradition, reaching all the way back to Africa, while heading toward what’s not happened yet with a high level of confidence. In the end, Moor Mother’s optimism becomes infectious, and this anniversary remembrance from an expanded and enlivened Art Ensemble of Chicago eschews even an inkling of a keepsake. Instead, it blossoms into a tonic for difficult times.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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