REVIEW: Art Ensemble of Chicago at Cafe Oto

Hugh Ragin of Art Ensemble of Chicago at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All Rights Reserved

Art Ensemble of Chicago
(Cafe Oto, 2 February 2017, night 2 of 3 night residency; review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

At the heart of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s second night of their momentous Cafe Oto residency was a dialogue of fluency and fearless invention that spoke of the breadth of language and landscape that constitutes the essence of jazz itself.

The quartet, of founder Roscoe Mitchell on soprano and alto saxes, longtime Ensemble percussionist Don Moye, trumpeter and frequent collaborator with David Murray, Hugh Ragin and go-to Chicagoan bass player Junius Paul, charted a course that eschewed cliche to explore the hinterland where the rich argots of African and jazz musical histories blended and burst into fresh and ever renewing threads.

Established in the mid-1960s out of the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet and the AACM, Mitchell has said, in an illuminating conversation, “The Art Ensemble is an institution. The way it was run was that we dealt with whatever was there.” It functions as a collective, which Moye added, should be a model for younger musicians facing the kinds of issues the Ensemble experiences. A different paradigm to the Sun Ra Arkestra which also embraces theatricality yet, has a hierarchical element to it, even though both share similar motivations.

Mitchell puts musicianship at the core of their practice. “Nothing is by chance. To really be a good improviser, you’ve got to study music. You’ve got to study composition. You have to know counterpoint. You have to know that if somebody’s playing eighth notes, you can play triplets or half notes. … You have to know dynamic ranges of certain instruments.”

The wiry Mitchell had earlier been sussing out the venue, wandering its confines, sitting in various spots, similar to Henry Grimes before his recitals. This was a prelude to the dramatic start to the concert which had the quartet standing stock still, facing the audience, waiting until they had its undivided attention and complete silence before they made their move.

This ritual recalled the Art Ensemble’s possibly only other London appearance, witnessed in 1979 at the Roundhouse, all costumed and face-painted with the inimitable presence of Lester Bowie frontstage combining theatricality and wit to add to the musical impact. At Cafe Oto, Moye, bedecked in multi-hued patterned garments and headgear maintained the spirit of those earlier performance tropes.

Taking the cue from Mitchell’s sharp single note toot on soprano sax, echoed by Ragin’s urgent response on pocket trumpet, Moye’s crashing cymbals launched in to pulsating, tribal overdrive with Paul filling out any space in the void. Throughout an eighty minute rhythmic magic carpet ride they established a trance-like power flow executed with the conventional separation of the brass and rhythm sections, but critically, always working together as one unit, constantly cross-referencing, building and rebuilding.

Mitchell took the saxophone in to the liminal zones with fiery, grating timbres. Paul and Moye added the colouration of ‘little instruments’, ancillary bells, gongs and shakers, while Ragin transformed the trumpet’s tones from sweet to grizzled scuzzy.

Solos were inspired and inspiring with Mitchell’s non-stop, scudding flow drawing the first of several rounds of applause – almost unheard of at cool Cafe Oto! Moye’s spell on bongos functioned as a backdrop for Paul’s driving, singular solo statement.

To round out the set they unexpectedly swung in to a tight, melodic groove, and encored with steadfast funk from the ever-precise Moyes, dynamic brass duetting and an eventual slow-down to land in a savanna landscape.

No wonder this series had been – as the club expressed it on their website – “on our wishlist from the day Cafe Oto opened.” Cafe Oto pushed the boat out to secure this exceptional sold-out residency and on this evidence were more than amply rewarded with one of their most special seasons to date. Any chance of a return visit?

Roscoe Mitchell of Art Ensemble of Chicago at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All Rights Reserved 

The Art Ensemble of Chicago

Roscoe Mitchell – alto and soprano saxes
Hugh Ragin – trumpet, flugelhorn and piccolo trumpet
Junius Paul – double bass
Famoudou Don Moye – drums

Categories: miscellaneous

1 reply »

  1. I went to the 1982 Roundhouse concert. I also saw the AEC at The Royal Festival Hall in 1984, The Fairfield Halls in 1987, The Union Chapel in 1993 and the Barbican in 2001. All venues that can be considered to be in London.

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