|Members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago at the interview
L-R: Don Moye, Roscoe Mitchell, Hugh Ragin
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All Rights Reserved
The third and final night of Art Ensemble of Chicago’s residency at Cafe Oto (17 October 2017) came with two bonuses. The first was a hastily arranged interview early in the evening, the second was the addition of the string trio, Hear In Now, to augment the quartet, resulting a remarkable performance later that evening. Geoff Winston reports:
The interview, arranged at a day’s notice, was guided by broadcaster Kevin LeGendre, in conversation with the Ensemble’s co-founder, Roscoe Mitchell, percussionist Don Moye and trumpeter Hugh Ragin (bass player Julius Paul wasn’t present). Their captivating dialogue shone light on the Ensemble’s experience and history, their music and teaching practices, and their engagement with contemporary issues. Bon mots abounded and the conversation was spun through with wisdom, humour and a pervasive sense of optimism.
They covered so much ground, a few snippets will give something of its flavour. Mitchell, at 77 years young, offered that he is ‘more interested in being a student right now – more than any other time in my life.’ Moye, likewise, said he was ‘back to studying more than ever before.’ That’s in the broadest sense, not academia.
‘I practice my instrument and the rest of it takes care of itself.’ Mitchell went on to say it was as necessary to practice improvising as it was playing solo and with others, and alighted on to the importance of learning to listen. He urged: ‘Listen to the birds, they’re never wrong. … If you listen, you see what shapes you’re making,’ adding, ‘silence is perfect,’ a thought to which he returned for a disarmingly witty moment during their high-energy performance. Moye took it even further: ‘Listen with your eyes and your ears.’
Mitchell related how everybody had a garden in his childhood Chicago, and nobody had to leave the neighbourhood to make a living, adding an image of buckets being put out to catch snow to make ice cream! Moye quizzed on the city’s tensions, said many police officers were, off-duty, his music students, while Mitchell invoked Moor Mother’s crucial plea for today: ‘We want our future back.’
Ragin recounted how he made contact with the Ensemble as a student on their residency course at Woodstock at new year 1978/79 and how it was ‘a dream come true sitting in Lester Bowie’s seat.’ There were wry smiles as they recalled rich cross-fertilisation with the Sun Ra Arkestra, and on being quizzed on the term they coined to usurp the word ‘jazz’, ‘Great Black Music, Ancient To Future’, they burst in to a wordplay listing spree … ‘Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price … Hank Mobley …’ with Moye declaring ‘It’s art … Art Blakey, Art Tatum, Art Taylor, Art-uro Sandoval!’
Talking about time in San Francisco at the height of the hippy era where they recorded with Nick Gravenites and stayed in a house owned by Big Brother and the Holding Company, Mitchell drew a comparison saying, ‘This period here is almost like the ’60s. Different disciplines get together. … What music does, it shakes the dust off itself … it feels like that kind of time now.’ Not forgetting that, like Tower of Power, seen only two days earlier, the Art Ensemble of Chicago are about to celebrate their 50th anniversary – and, as we found later in the evening, are firing on all cylinders, and some!
This just skims the surface. There’s a possibility that Cafe Oto may be able to give access to the recorded discussion through their website, which would be ideal to get the full drift of their quick fire repartee.
Review of concert performance to follow.