The Art Ensemble of Chicago

By Nick Morrison

If you were at Mandel Hall last Friday, you do not need to read this—in fact, you probably shouldn’t, given the tendency of words to fail in these kinds of situations. If you weren’t there, you should know in advance that nothing that I write here can communicate to you the experience of the Art Ensemble’s decadent, gorgeous concert.

This decadence and decay is—like the pomp of a royal line at the end of its days—splendid to behold. Although there were only six musicians on stage, the entire stage area of Mandel Hall was brimming over with elaborate racks of percussive instruments. Gongs, bells, and rattles, among other things, were used to set the mood during the 10-minute percussion introduction. This was an incredible moment in Mandel Hall—one does not expect to see a sextet of old men on a Friday night, lightly toying with a hundreds of little cymbals, creating an arcing wash of sound that is just not a part of the same realm of music as what is usually performed in the hall. When Roscoe Mitchell finally crawled out from his percussion chamber and picked up his sax, the audience was prepared, not relieved. The Art Ensemble had simply been setting the tone.

The Art Ensemble, in its classic format, consisted of Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman on reeds (saxophones and clarinets), Lester Bowie on trumpet, Malachi Favors on bass, and Famoudou Don Moye on drums. This quintet stands as one of the founders of Free Jazz—music liberated from all tonal, modal, and even rhythmic restraints, inhabiting a domain of rigorous group improvisation and technical virtuosity. Many of their ’70s and ’80s recordings are milestones in the history of experimental music. They spent several years touring and recording in Europe during the early ’70s, and played their first show back in Chicago on January 15, 1972 at Mandel Hall (the reason this concert is being touted as the Art Ensemble’s “historic return” to Mandel).

Lester Bowie died some time ago, and Mr. Favors died quite recently. Mitchell, Jarman, and Moye were joined for this concert by Jaribu Shahid on bass, Corey Wilkes on trumpet, and Baba Sissoko on n’gone and tama (a type of stringed instrument and a small drum, respectively). Mr. Wilkes, who is quite young, has been around town quite a bit recently. I saw him play at the Velveta few months ago, and even more recently with our very own Jazz X-tet. He is quite a phenomenal artist, and a man for whom to be on the lookout. The next few years may be the last in which he will be easy to catch in his hometown.

There were two moments during the first extended free-improvisation section where the rhythm section cut out spontaneously. This left Wilkes all alone to quietly eek out an impossible note from his trumpet—only to have the rest of the band slide gently back in behind him as he sustained it. Of course, the old timers were not to be outdone—Famoundou Don Moye’s total control of the arrhythmic sections and consistent inversion of the expected fills was outmatched only by his ability to rock. He did this surprisingly extensively for a 60-year-old jazz drummer, especially during the encore. Roscoe Mitchell, however, was probably the most outstanding musician on the stage. During a moment in the latter half of the set, in the midst of total musical chaos, he began a cascading chromatic arpeggio that he sustained without pause for at least a minute and half (using a technique known as circular breathing). The complete calm and lack of showiness in the moment garnered a roar from audience, as Mitchell signaled Moye to round off the solo and return to the lead. In his performance, Mitchell showed the kind of control that is so much in control that control is no longer even in issue.

From the moment the first gongs were sounded to the final encore—which ended in a parade of what I can only assume were Moye’s children, or nephews, or students—the Art Ensemble established a profound musical pact with the audience. Through their patience, the calm with which they proceeded, and the aura of age and wisdom they carried with them, this venerable group established a pact whereby the audience accorded them complete freedom to apply their rigorous musicianship. Even when the communication momentarily failed—as it did for me during Jarman’s New Age Buddhist chantings—the pact sustained the confidence of the audience. Music like this can never be perfect in every moment, and it is rarely firm for more than a few minutes. But for all its overripe qualities, for all of the dissonance and near-incoherence that emanates from the stage, the pungent, powerful smell of pure creativity is overwhelmingly present.

In some sense, there is nowhere for the Art Ensemble to go from here. The fruit has fallen to the ground. It fell around 40 years ago. Since then, something fundamental has changed about the way music can be (and is) made. The Art Ensemble is among the first to master this new art form. Watching a creative process occur directly in front of you truly does have the effect of putting you in greater contact with the music—if you learn to listen. All you have to do is be there.