For this concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of its foundation, the Art Ensemble of Chicago is, in a sense, both diminished and expanded. Saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and drummer Famadou Don Moye are the only surviving members of the classic line-up, but tonight the group is swollen to a 13-piece, intergenerational, multi-gendered ensemble, including a string section of three double-basses, two cellos, viola and violin. Following the now customary opening minute’s silence, Mitchell cues a long string drone that seems to deepen with each passing moment. From the start, it’s clear that he’s in control, restlessly prowling the stage, whispering instructions in the ear of Brett Carson at the piano, while conducting the ensemble through austere chamber constructions. On pieces like ‘Saturday Morning’ and ‘Chi-Congo 50’ – both from the triumphant recent album We Are On The Edge – Moye comes out from behind the kit and joins Kikanju Baku in setting up a heavy barrage of hand percussion, leading into extraordinarily dense passages of group improvisation, with multiple simultaneous solos raging over driving vamps, while Mitchell sits, head lowered, utterly immersed in the sound.
On the few fleeting occasions when he takes a solo himself, Mitchell launches into abstract, dogged investigations of the soprano’s hidden angles, leaving it to guest Shabaka Hutchings to blow a more robust tenor. After a solid hour of fierce, uncompromising music, the group settles into the familiar laid back swing of ‘Owdalia’, the tune that traditionally signals the concert is coming to a close, with Moye flicking out a slick, relaxed tempo. In fact, Moye is such a force throughout that it’s a little surprising to see him leaning heavily on a stick when he comes to the front of the stage to receive a standing ovation alongside his comrades. Finally, a surprise: for the encore, bassist Junius Paul straps on an electric bass and thrums out the riff for ‘Funky Aeco’, a feel-good foot-tapper from 1984’s The Third Decade. It’s a beautifully judged finale to a masterful show by one of the mightiest groups of all time.
Photos: Tim Dickeson