Live review

Art Ensemble of Chicago at the Barbican (2019 EFG LJF)

Art Ensemble of Chicago
(Barbican, EFG London Jazz Festival, 23 November 2019. Review by Jon Turney; Drawings by Geoff Winston)

Anyone who has heard the Art Ensemble of Chicago live during their 50-year history expects to see a panoply of instruments and apparatus on stage. This evening had those, and a lot more music stands than usual. With the passing of three of the Art Ensemble’s principals, their anniversary was marked by uniting the remaining founder, Roscoe Mitchell and their percussionist since 1970 Famoudou Don Moye with a host of younger players.

Most were associated with the Chicago scene, and particularly the larger network of the Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians, at one time or an other. They were well attuned to the demands of multiple styles that were always the Art Ensemble’s trade mark.

Art Ensemble of Chicago – Shabaka Hutchings (left) and Famadou Don Moye (right). Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2019. All Rights Reserved

This evening, they were not so much a version of the Art Ensemble as the Roscoe Mitchell big band – 14 pieces including a seven-piece string section. Mitchell directed with meaningful stares and occasional hand signals, occasionally ambling across the Barbican’s ample stage to confer with one of the band.

Art Ensemble of Chicago – Roscoe Mitchell in full flow. Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2019. All Rights Reserved

There was a highly organised air to the proceedings, beginning with the string drone and rumble of tom toms that permeated the first piece. It was in the first of the many styles the band dug into in a single 90-minute set – a meditative, modern classical mood, bordering on minimalism.

Many other styles followed. A Lester Bowie-esque trumpet solo yielded to a display of tuned percussion, with guest saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings roaring over the top. Mitchell’s astringent soprano playing danced with the cellos. Another guest, cellist Abel Selaocoe, delivered a fine spell of African vocalising. And there were further solo excursions for trumpet (Hugh Ragin) piano (Brett Carson) and Moye.

The set built to a freely improvised ensemble passage, with everyone eventually pitching in. This was also a style, the good ol’ 1960s avant-garde. Opinion may differ on whether it wears well. It was duly riotous and raucous, but for me, collective free blowing for 14 people deadens the senses pretty rapidly. The contrast with the burst of straight-ahead swing that followed was very effective, needless to say. But it also reinforced the impression that this is now very studied music. The provocation-with-playfulness that the Art Ensemble of old brought off regularly is a hard thing to recapture after all these years.

Still, that last number cued a standing ovation for the magisterial Mitchell and all his cohorts, and some gentle funk, dealt from two electric basses and tuba, for the encore. A light-hearted end to a varied if sometimes uncomfortably disjointed evening.

Set list:
Welcome and Neola – Roscoe Mitchell
Cyp Cards – Roscoe Mitchell
Card in the Faces of Roses – Roscoe mitchell
Saturday Morning – Donald moye
The Flow of Things – Roscoe Mitchell
Dancer – Donald Moye
Tutankhamun – Malachi Favors
Restoration Intensive – Hugh Ragin
Chicongo Dmitry – Donald Moye
City Cif Nepne – Donald Moye
Owdalla – Roscoe Mitchell
Funky Aeco – Art Ensemble of Chicago

Jon Turney writes about jazz, and other things, from Bristol. jonturney.co.uk.  Twitter: @jonWturney 

Art Ensemble of Chicago – Famadou Don Moye. Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2019. All Rights Reserved

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