In September of 2015, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago hosted a concert in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). The concert was organized by one of the group’s first members, wind player Roscoe Mitchell. The Museum’s exhibition on this occasion included both artworks by AACM members and percussion instruments used by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. This group was formed by Mitchell in 1967, joined by Lester Bowie on trumpet, Malachi Favors on bass, and sometimes Joseph Jarman on piano. It was originally called the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, and the name became the Art Ensemble of Chicago in 1969.
The 50th anniversary concert took place in both the Museum theatre and the exhibition space itself. The program was organized around four different trios that Mitchell led. He played his composition “Prelude to a Rose” with trumpeter Hugh Ragin and Tyshawn Sorey on trombone and rhythm. “Dancing in the Canyon” was a free improvisation conceived jointly by Mitchell, Craig Taborn on keyboards, and percussionist Kikanju Baku. Mitchell’s “Prelude to the Card Game, Cards for Drums, and The Final Hand” brought him together with percussionist Tani Tabbal and Jaribu Shahid covering the rest of the rhythm. Finally, Mitchell joined with two of his colleagues at Mills College, wind player James Fei and percussionist William Winant, to play “Spatial Aspects of Sound,” “EP 7849,” “Bells for the South Side,” “The Last Chord,” and “Panoply,” the last inspired by Mitchell’s painting of the same name:
Roscoe Mitchell's Panoply on the back cover of the booklet for the album being discussed
(Mitchell holds the Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition at Mills.) The entire group joined together for “Red Moon In The Sky,” followed, without a break, by “Odwalla,” during which Mitchell introduced all of the players.
This concert was recorded in its entirety by David Zuchowski. Those recordings were then mixed and mastered for the production of the two-CD album Bells for the South Side, which will be released by ECM this Friday. As usual, Amazon.com is processing pre-orders.
As its Wikipedia page observes, “The AACM has been on the forefront of the avant-garde since its inception in 1965;” and, over the course of its different names, Mitchell’s Art Ensemble was at the forefront of performing music from that forefront. What is striking about this “retrospective” album is that the players are still looking forward, rather than recalling the past nostalgically. Indeed, these tracks are so prospective that they may well be disorienting to listeners not familiar with past AACM achievements.
This happens to be of great comfort to me personally. Those who follow this site regularly know that, more frequently than I would like, I respond to performances of “new music,” whether in a jazz setting or a recital, wondering what is so new about it all. I have tried very hard to avoid the now-overused adjective “lame” when confronted with such situations. It does not take much time with Bells for the South Side for the listener to appreciate that there is nothing lame about how Mitchell makes music with his colleagues. Even the quieter pieces still offer a firm kick to remind the listener of which way is forward. It thus seems fitting that this album of music performed to honor the 50th anniversary of AACM should be released in the 50th anniversary year of Mitchell’s Art Ensemble; and, for me at least, it is enormously comforting to know that the spirit behind the founding of that Art Ensemble continues to thrive.
(By way of a postscript, I should observe that my cat Daphne, who usually persistently tries to attract my attention while I am trying to write, responds to the tracks on this album by sitting quietly and staring at her image in the mirror.)