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A 50 year worth, ever-expanding legacy:
Art Ensemble of Chicago

Blog
A 50 year worth, ever-expanding legacy: Art Ensemble of Chicago

24.12.2018

Text: Cem Kayıran
Illustration: Saydan Akşit
Translation: Yetkin Nural

Art Ensemble of Chicago, a pioneer collective of avant-garde music, is celebrating their 50th anniversary with a special tour and various releases. Here are some observations from their recent performance in November at Le Guess Who? Festival and notes from their musical journey.

Art Ensemble of Chicago is without doubt one of the first bands that come to mind when we talk about free or avant-garde music. One of the most original adventures of music history, the ensemble’s journey started in the mid 60’s as a part of Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians Project that was initiated by one of the pioneer names of free jazz, Muhal Richard Abrams. Lester Bowie, who was one of those musicians that improvised together with Abrams’ lead for days and weeks until a total harmony between them was established, convinced the rest of the team to move to Paris so they can keep working on playing as a spontaneous yet harmonious whole. The journey that would make avant-garde jazz history started like that, at a farmhouse studio that was also the place where the ensemble’s name was given.

The legendary team’s members were Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors, Joseph Jarman and Famoudou Don Moye. As the 70’s started to roll in, Art Ensemble of Chicago quickly made its name known on the international platform and became an inspiring collective with their prolific production, exploration of new sounds and the fresh communication between their songs. Famoudou Don Moye explains what Lester Bowie – the leader of the ensemble back then – foresaw for Art Ensemble of Chicago:

“It was early 1970, when I was just coming into the band. Lester told me: 'Don't even mess with this if you don't want to be part of history"

During the 70’s, as Art Ensemble of Chicago was creating original sounds and emotions with a deconstructive approach to music that doesn’t care for existing structures, the individual members also continued to produce in various duo, trio and solo projects on the side. The releases that came out of ensemble’s own label company AECO, as well as legendary live performances, helped transforming every single member into heroes of the avant-garde music stage.

The ensemble consecutively released their most popular albums from ECM during the 80’s. The music authorities were almost anonymously referring them as the ‘‘best jazz ensemble of the period’’, while albums such as Urban Bushmen and The Third Decade played an important role for the band to reach cult status.

Two original members of the ensemble, Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors, passed away in 1999 and 2004. Another founding member, Joseph Harman, left the band for a long time to focus on his spiritual work. Despite such developments, Art Ensemble of Chicago kept on performing in duo or trio set ups as well as with various guest musicians. And this year, on the 50th anniversary of their foundation, the ensemble decided to celebrate with an extensive tour and special releases.

Ensemble toured USA and Europe during 2018 for special live performances with an extended and renewed line up, to prove once again why their music, which has been defined by masses as ‘’Great Black Music’’, is a special heritage that crosses generations and cultures effortlessly. The 2018 tour included stops such as Café OTO’da in UK, Primavera Sound Festival in Spain, and finally Le Guess Who? Festival in the city of Utrecht, Holland. The new line-up included the founding members Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye, as well as new members Hugh Ragin, Jaribou Shahid and Tomeka Reid.

The ensemble’s performance at the glorious main stage of Tivoli Vredenburg during Le Guess Who? was one of the few performances that I felt very lucky to witness in my whole life. Roscoe Mitchell opened the concert with a long, intense solo and the performance continued onto new renditions/clashes of familiar sounds from the band’s 50 years old journey. Art Ensemble of Chicago’s musical expression, which extended into new dimensions with the inclusion of cello and two contrabasses, was a rebellion against time, written / unwritten laws of music and desensitization of the moment. It is not hard at all to imagine that the band carried the exact same level of motivation 50 years ago at that farmhouse studio, talking and making music.

Roscoe Mitchell led the explosive performance from beginning to end, and Famoudou Don Moye got on the stage with a walking stick only to transform into a giant when he sat down to his drums. Their harmony and communication with the younger part of the new line-up showcased once more that how different Art Ensemble of Chicago is from any other music collective. Their performance brought sections from another universe where passion is formed not by ideas but by emotions and transformed into a whole new perspective. Even though it is possible to find such perspectives and passion in other musicians today, to experience Roscoe Mitchell, Famoudou Don Moye, Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors’ ever-expanding legacy live is an unforgettable moment for any music lover.

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