The Art Ensemble of Chicago is 50 this year, and the band at the Barbican featured two of the original members, Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye – Lester Bowie died in 1999, Malachi Favors in 2004, and Joseph Jarman in 2019. This historic event featured a 15-piece line-up, with Mitchell on saxophones, Moye on drums, congas, djembè and percussion, Hugh Ragin on trumpet, flugelhorn and piccolo trumpet, Simon Sieger on trombone, Jean Cook on violin, Eddy Kwon on viola, Brett Carson on piano, Silvia Bolognesi, Jaribu Shahid and Junius Paul on bass, Enoch Williamson and Kikanju Baku on percussion, Tomeka Reid on cello, and UK guests Shabaka Hutchings on tenor saxophone, and Abel Selaocoe on cello.
The AEC’s influences are diverse. The free jazz aesthetic has always been central, but the group has incorporated influences from the range of African-American popular musics including blues, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, New Orleans jazz, vaudeville and marching bands – hence their motto “Great Black Music – Ancient to Modern”. Members are multi-instrumentalists, often doubling on percussion and what they call little instruments, such as gongs, bells, chimes and sirens. The theatrical character to their performances was very evident here.
The Barbican material, and expanded line-up, partly reflected the ensemble’s first new album in more than a decade, We Are On The Edge, released on Pi in April. The AEC has often supplemented its line-up, touring with Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, and South African vocal group Amabutho, and recording with Cecil Taylor, Don Pullen and Muhal Richard Abrams. As on the Pi album, the concert lineup spanned the generations. Trumpeter Hugh Ragin and bassist Jaribu Shahid are long-time partners of Mitchell – Shahid has been working with the AEC since Favors’ death in 2004. Percussionist Enoch Williamson is a long-time partner of Moye, and cellist Tomeka Reid is a member of AACM.
Highlights included a tintinnabular piece led by Mitchell on crotales, and a bucolic piece featuring Mitchell on soprano sax. Chi-Congo 50 was a tribute to the free-jazz title track of the 1970 Paris recording, that appears on We Are On The Edge. The closing number was Odwalla, the catchy Art Ensemble theme tune which also provided a jingle for the Odwalla juice company. The encore with a funk groove was the collective composition Funky Aeco from the ensemble’s 1984 album The Third Decade, which concluded the extended set in rousing fashion.
Art Ensemble of Chicago. Barbican Theatre, 23 November 2019 as part of the 2019 EFG London Jazz Festival.