The Art Ensemble of Chicago
We Are On The Edge
The jazz my high school band director forced down my throat didn’t move me. His idea of jazz began with Glenn Miller and ended with Benny Goodman. They were giants of the big band era, but they didn’t excite me as a kid in the ’70s. I sort of wrote off jazz as a dead letter until I got to college. It was there, thanks to the great selection in the used bin at Flat, Black and Circular that I discovered there was more to jazz. I was introduced to iconoclasts like Max Roach, Ornette Coleman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. These artists blew my mind and shattered my preconceptions of what music could be. I owe Don Cherry, Carla Bley and Ralph Towner a lot for opening my mind to a world of sonic possibilities.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago were incredible teachers. The band grew out of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). The original ensemble includes Lester Bowie, the trumpeter who always wore lab coats on stage, reed man Joseph Jarman, bassist Malachi Favors along with drummer Famadou Don Moye and reed player Roscoe Mitchell. We Are On The Edge celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Art Ensemble, although only Mitchell and Moye are still with us on this plane of existence.
We Are On The Edge sees the Art Ensemble of Chicago embrace their most expansive line up. 18 musicians contribute to this recording that fully embraces the groups motto, Great Black Music, Ancient to Future. The first disc are studio recordings of the mega ensemble. The recording opens with an oratorio featuring Rodolfo Cordova called “Variations and Sketches from the Bamboo Terrace.” The highly orchestrated piece reflects Roscoe Mitchell’s recent work at Mills College where he’s been focused on composition and structure. “We Are On The Edge” looks to the streets with Avant-noise artist Moore Mother providing a spoken word break down. She lists the ills that the black community has persevered through over the decades, only to declare, “We are on the edge of victory.” It’s a song of hope. In all their various incarnations, that’s the core of what the Art Ensemble of Chicago has always been about.
The second disc of this set was recorded live at Edge Fest in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Art Ensemble of Chicago has always thrived in a live setting where composition and inspired improvisation can play freely. The second disc features looser versions of “We Are On The Edge” and “Oasis at Dusk.” The live disc also revisits “Tutankhamen” and “Odwalla/tbe Theme” that have been part of the Art Ensemble’s repertoire for decades. In a way, the expanded version of the Art Ensemble is a passing of the torch. Roscoe and Malachi may be the only surviving members, but there is are new generations coming up who will keep the ideal of Great Black Music – Ancient to Future alive and challenging for decades to come.