REVIEW: Art Ensemble of Chicago at Cafe Oto

Art Ensemble of Chicago with Hear in Now trio at Cafe Oto.
(L-R) Mitchell, Junius, Ragin, Swift, Moye, Reid, Bolognesi.
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All rights reserved.

Art Ensemble of Chicago
(17 October 2017. Final night of three-day residency at Cafe Oto. Review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

Following their fascinating interview (LINK) the final night of Art Ensemble of Chicago’s residency at Cafe Oto ended with a remarkable performance.


For their final concert of their Cafe Oto residency, the Art Ensemble of Chicago expanded to a seven-piece, augmented by the three-woman string trio, Hear In Now, formed in 2009, of Chicago-based cellist Tomeka Reid, violinist Mazz Swift from New York and string bassist Silvia Bolognesi, hailing from Siena. Mitchell referred to Reid in the interview as “second generation AACM” (the pivotal Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians, founded 1965 in Chicago).

This was one of those concerts where musical confines don’t really exist but a finely-matched combination of talents and deeply ingrained intuitive responses allowed the individual musicians to work together, in this instance, around Mitchell’s scored structure to create a uniquely flavoured magnum opus of around 75 minutes duration.

Setting up his reeds on stage, Roscoe Mitchell, iconoclastic saxophonist, flautist and co-founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, carried himself with a deceptive formality, in striped shirt and navy tie with diagonal stripes, college-style. Joined by his six fellow musicians they all stood and turned to face east for a minute before settling – a sign that they were about to embark on a journey of weighty import, and that all co-travellers in the house had better fasten their seatbelts.

A fleeting, fluttering passage on flute set the tone with Don Moye backing up on congas, then Swift’s breathy, shuddering vocalese, the twin basses of Junius Paul and Bolognesi, and Reid’s chiselling cello. All of a sudden there was a brightly textured soundscape in full play. As drones were elicited from bowed basses in tandem with percussive taps, Hugh Ragin’s flugelhorn drifted in to add a carefully pitched layer, easing the pace. Switching to muted trumpet, drawn from a wide tabletop array of instruments, he crafted a lyrical thread mirrored lightly by Junius.

Roscoe Mitchell, hunched forward, left, while Hugh Ragin plays muted trumpet.
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All rights reserved.

To his side, the seated Mitchell leant forward gathering his energy for an extraordinary extemporisation on soprano sax where the instrument’s natural sonics were subverted and inverted to take on raw flute timbres and harmonic edges and to release soaring, whistling gusts. The basses synched in light, pointed accents while Reid scuffed on the surface to add ambiguity to the vista. Chuckling for an instant after shouting out “Silence is golden”, Mitchell embarked on an extended spell of piercing, shattered outpourings sustained by continuous breathing, met with full applause after which the baton (metaphorical) was handed to Moye, who initiated an immaculately paced, flowing percussion solo.

Moye has termed himself a Sun Percussionist, “exploring the traditions of African-American percussion music”, a heritage which shone through as multiple, layered rhythms were interwoven to set up a parallel solo spot for the entire string trio working breathtakingly as one. While cello and violin flew off in loose and fast flight, Bolognese held the rhythm and melodic form.

Junius took off on a solo of the utmost subtlety, near inaudible then breaking back with physical presence, mobile and articulate. Ragin, in outstandingly versatile form throughout, moved on to pocket trumpet and paved the way for a power-charged stream of improvisation from the entire crew. Everything kicked off in all directions, yet there was an invisible guiding force underlying the whole enterprise – Mitchell had seen to that. The sustained tempest suddenly dropped right down to give Ragin his voice with delicate, muted flugelhorn, then spluttery trumpet, underscored by full string drones and plucked notes.

Roscoe Mitchell at Cafe Oto.
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All rights reserved.

Heartfelt applause and, to close down, a brief, swinging encore. After Mitchell name-checked the musicians he called out “The ART Ensemble of Chicago”, with the emphasis firmly on Art. It certainly was – and one of the most special evenings ever at Cafe Oto.

Hear In Now are playing the Vortex on Sunday, which is also the final day of Tate Modern’s Soul Nation; Art in the Age of Black Power.

LINKS: Art Ensemble of Chicago reviewed in February 2017
Vortex gig on Sunday: Hear In Now with Alexander Hawkins
Hear in Now on Rudi Records
Final Day of Tate Modern’s Soul Nation; Art in the Age of Black Power

Categories: miscellaneous

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