The elders are always with us, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago came to life by making this fact central to their practice. In 1967, before the group had settled on a name, trumpeter Lester Bowie suggested the phrase “Great Black Music” as a motto for an expansive vision that took in almost every form, and as an explainer that might keep the word “jazz” from their door. (It didn’t.) Bassist Malachi Favors added “Ancient to the Future” to the phrase, and it was finished. In 1969, after being called the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet and, simply, the Art Ensemble, the band settled on the name they’ve kept since. The core members of the group emerged from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, established in 1965 on the south side of Chicago. In 2015, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago mounted an exhibit for the fiftieth anniversary of the AACM, titled “The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now.”
The show gave Mitchell a chance to make the motto concrete. Among the archival material on display in the gallery space was the full-stage percussion setup used by the Art Ensemble. Bells for the South Side captures four of Mitchell’s trios playing in various combinations at the MCA, some of them using the Ensemble’s gear. We’ve lost Bowie and Favors, but Mitchell is very much with us, celebrating his 77th birthday next week on August 3. There is only one Art Ensemble track on Bells for the South Side — the 1972 Mitchell composition “Odwalla” — and it is a friendly sign-off, hardly the centerpiece. Mitchell has no need of nostalgia. Bells is a remarkable, vibrant piece of work from a musician who listened to the elders and then became one.
Mitchell teaches both improvisation and composition at Mills College in Oakland, where he lives now with his wife. (He was in danger of losing his job due to budget cuts earlier this year but avoided the ax and will finish out the remainder of his three-year appointment to the Darius Milhaud Chair in Composition, a position he’s held since 2007.) His compositions lean toward the unsentimental, his improvisations the drier. On Bells for the South Side, “Prelude to a Rose” matches Mitchell’s alto saxophone with Hugh Ragin on trumpet and Tyshawn Sorey on trombone. The top and bottom of the nearly thirteen-minute track are stately, a slow theme of lines drawn out and folded together. The long gulf in the middle is an exploration of breath, both a force and a topic for Mitchell, who mastered circular breathing techniques late in his career but has been investigating the seam between the body and the horn since the mid-Sixties. All three players work through various stations of honk and bleat, and the challenge of the one-second run, pushing into the edges of the brass and wood. Mitchell’s bands are exceptionally good at this kind of shaping, skinning down sound to threads and twisting it back into ropes.
The track that best combines the Art Ensemble’s original instruments with newer sources is “EP 7849,” an utterly freaked and haunted collaboration. It begins with scattered metal bumps before Jaribu Shahid’s distorted bass guitar starts to glow. William Winant, Tani Tabbal, Kikanju Baku, and Sorey all work the angles of their percussion, creating the sound of a bowed instrument one moment and a shapeless roar the next. Craig Taborn scratches an electronic line around the circle, while Mitchell conducts the band and keeps it as quiet as it is terrifying. It is no small testament to Mitchell (and the larger Chicago cohort) that the digital and analog signals of the moment are completely of a piece with instruments brought on board in the Sixties, after being hammered into shape. There is no reaching here, no well-meaning hybrids shouting “2017!”
“EP 7849” melts into “Bells for the South Side,” which reminds us that the Art Ensemble wasn’t just averse to the turf wars of jazz — they are as much vaudeville as Dada and have never gone gently into that good art world. (Track down The Paris Session, recorded in 1969, and you’ll hear the midpoint between the Marx Brothers and Sun Ra.) “Bells” opens with jingling and then an alarm clock. Then there’s a siren: the intention of a bell. And then we get the gongs and tuned bells, stalks on the plain, with Ragin’s trumpet crying out as the lonesome American.
In 2019, the Art Ensemble of Chicago will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary with concerts all over the world. The lineup coming to New York contains a few of the players from Bells, which you need for yourself, for the past, and for the future. That we have the chance to hear Mitchell, and that younger listeners might actually pay attention this time, is perhaps the most remarkable thing of all.