The Art Ensemble Of Chicago - We Are On The Edge

Label: Pi Recordings, 2019

Personnel includes - Roscoe Mitchell: soprano and alto saxophones, sopranino; Famoudou Don Moye: drums, percussion; Moor Mother: voice, poetry; Rodolfo Cordova-Lebron: voice; Hugh Ragin: trumpet, flugelhorn; Fred Berry: trumpet, flugelhorn; Nicole Mitchell – flutes, piccolo; Christina Wheeler: voice, autoharp, electronics; Jean Cook: violin; Edward Yoon Kwon: viola; Tomeka Reid: cello; Silvia Bolognesi: bass; Jaribu Shahid: bass; Junius Paul: bass; Dudù Kouaté: percussion; Enoch Williamson: percussion; Titos Sompa: vocals, mbira, percussion.

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Founded in 1969, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, champions of the Great Black Music, interrupts a studio recording hiatus of 15 years to celebrate their 50th anniversary with a two-disc set (one of them recorded live at Edgefest in Ann Harbor, Michigan). Currently with 18 members, the group appears as a completely new constellation in the creative scene, including valuable additions such as flutist/composer Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid, experimentalist/activist Moor Mother, trumpeter Hugh Ragin, bassists Junius Paul and Jaribu Shahid, among others. The highly anticipated record comprises new material as well as some re-orchestrations of old tunes, having two of its founders at the helm: Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye. It’s dedicated to the original members who already departed: Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, and Joseph Jarman.

Disc one kicks off with the immutable chamber lyricism of “Sketches From the Bamboo Terrace”. Vocalist Rodolfo Cordova-Lebron embraces a somewhat operatic intonation while joining the strings legato. The approach is repeated on the two parts of “Jamaican Farewell”.

Bell Song” and “Fanfare and Bell” have obviously the bells in common but are dissimilar in nature. The former, favoring more harmony than collision, is mounted with percussive chatters, whistles and hoots of flute diversion, and hushed trumpet, while the latter evinces a rhythmic decrease in favor of a pronouncedly classical temper. In turn, the closing piece, “Oasis At Dusk”, combines both the percussive and the classical practices with a contemplative beauty.

Brimming with cinematic refinement, “We Are On The Edge” boasts the inflammable spoken word by Moore Mother over a relentless vamp of pizzicato bass lines, percussion, and strings. Despite the group's energy and a great attitude, this title doesn’t match the restless Pan-African rhythms and expressionistic textures of “Chi-Congo 50”, an old piece dressed in new clothes. The primitive dance between wild, teetering, trilling flutes and a horde of sprightly horns is invigorating, producing one of those incantatory moments that no one wants to let go. From the minute three on, there’s a circular bass groove and euphoric horn interplay, reinforcing the magic and the singularity of this special ensemble.

The only problem with Lester Bowie-penned “Villa Tiamo” is its brevity, which makes us longing for the beautiful orchestration. For its part, “Saturday Morning” is a purely percussive, effervescent dance that impels us to jump and dance at the sound of cross-rhythms and syncopations. On a different note, “Mama Koko” carries a modern hip-hop feel as the collective praises Mother Africa.

Disc two is like a drop in the bucket, but brings a couple of classic tunes in the alignment: Favors’ “Tutankhamun” and Roscoe Mitchell’s “Odwalla/The Theme”, which serves to introduce the musicians.

Brewing liberating textural ambiances, the new version of The Art Ensemble of Chicago is injected fresh blood and orchestral significance, but keeps its musical roots raw and its principles well intact.

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
05 - Chi-Congo 50 ► 08 - Saturday Morning ►12 - Oasis at Dusk