The Art Ensemble Of Chicago is a powerful force in avant garde music.
Emerging from a coterie of jazz musicians in Chicago, the astonishing force of their live performances helped break left field music out of the boxes others tried to place it in.
Building a lengthy, inspired catalogue, the Ensemble's work has formed a unique aural universe, one it can confidently claim as its own.
Celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago toasted this milestone with phenomenal new album 'We Are On The Edge'.
Breaking free of their history, it finds the group locating 21st century kindred spirits, with guests ranging from Moor Mother to Jean Cook and Nicole Mitchell.
Touching down in London for a rare live set as part of EFG London Jazz Festival, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago played a blistering, exuberant, riotous set at the Barbican.
Guests on the night included Mercury nominee Shabaka Hutchings, with Clash sneaking in to witness an extraordinary, illuminating soundcheck.
After this, we sat down with Art Ensemble Of Chicago founder Roscoe Mitchell and Shabaka Hutchings for a full conversation.
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Roscoe, how did you first hear of Shabaka Hutchings’ output?
Roscoe: I’m just now getting familiar with his music, but I’m totally impressed by the way he was able to come into the rehearsal today, and get the music together like he did. I’m happy about that.
It must be daunting to come into such a historic group, Shabaka...
Shabaka: Yeah! It’s about how they operate in a big group, regardless of how the music is, or there are lessons on how musicians have operated as groups of individuals, creating a collective vision together, or collective sound. And that’s the thing that I really appreciate from looking at bands that have been operating for a long time. How is it that the group actually functions as one dynamic unit?
So stepping into this today, it’s about trying to figure out as quickly as possible what can make you almost be invisible when needed, or totally present when needed, and those moments in between. Like, how do you flow from one to another?
How do you manage to achieve that unity, Roscoe?
Roscoe: I think that this is a great time in music right now, there’s a lot of things that are really going to be possible. Things are moving into a place of their own. We don’t really have to do that much about it. I’ve never gone out and looked for people I was going to do music with, I just work on what I’m doing and let everyone else take care of itself.
You remain fixated on new ideas, which is remarkable. How do you retain that energy?
Roscoe: Well, most folks come up to me after the concert, and they don’t say they liked the concert, they say they needed it. At this point in my life I’m going to make every note count.
Shabaka: If you don’t try to seek out new things you’ll get bored and lose enthusiasm and become depressed and not want to do it.
For me, I need to want to do the thing that I’m doing, and to be satisfied doing whatever I’m doing – whether I’m brushing my teeth or playing music – it needs to be creative. And creative as in, you’re searching for something that keeps you activated. So as soon as the music becomes deactivated or you’re not lucid in it, or sleepwalking through it, that’s the point for me when the brain says: OK shake it up.
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Roscoe: I like to live in the moment. And this whole notion of free jazz – or whatever it is – I don’t understand that term. Not as hard as I work! It’s not free. Especially now, we’re moving into this thing where it’s composition in real time. That’s a big phrase.
I advise my students to do solo concerts, because you need to know how that feels. Solo, all the way up to full orchestra. And then it really starts to get complicated, because then you’re responsible for orchestration and all that kind of thing inside of the improvisations.
And improvisation... people run away from that word, but it’s not a new one. Thank God somebody followed Jacob Van Eyck around, the blind recorder player, and wrote down everything he was doing! He was the master of theme and development.
We’ve had all these great composers who are improvisers: Charlie Parker, Johann Sebastian Bach, Beethoven… y’see? It’s nothing new. I’d like to somehow be in the company of that kind of inspiration.
The Ensemble reaches out and features younger players, is it important for you as a composer to be constantly exposed to that sense of innovation?
Roscoe: Well, it’s not by chance. We’ve been developing this thing for 50 years. Some of these people are second generation AACM members. I have some of my former students here with me. There’s a lot of things in place. I can put people in place and get variety to what I’m doing, even.
The composr Ilan Volkov asked me to come to Reykjavik, and I didn’t want to go back there with the same piece. I wanted to have a way of generating our compositions at a more rapid pace, so I asked (Chicago based composer) Paul Steinbeck to help me find people that were interested in transcribing my improvisations of my trio recordings.
Once he did that, I had all this material that helped me study even closer the relationships that exist between composition and improvisation, because I can see it in real time. It helps me to be able to look at what people are playing, it’s interesting to know how people work. It adds diversity to the work.
Shabaka, you play in a variety of groups – you flew in from Istanbul last night after playing with The Comet Is Coming – what is it like to adjust to those different creative spacings?
Shabaka: I studied classical clarinet. I’m not one of those people who goes ‘oh, classical education is better’ but what it does it allows you to play in certain combinations, like chamber orchestras, symphony orchestras, that allows you to play in vastly different groups or formations of players.
So to listen to a group of 30 players is very different to listening to a group of four. One of the things that it does is it gets you listening laterally. You’ve got to listen to the person way over there – so to do that, and play, and focus on what you’re doing, you’ve got to be able to split your brain.
It’s like splitting your consciousness, where your fixture of gaze is. And I often find that the work I am most happy with is when I’m not completely fixated on what I’m doing.
When some part of my brain is locked into some other person across the room and I’m actually listening to them more than myself but then some automatic part of myself is guided to what I’m choosing to do. And in that big ensembles you get a chance to really throw your attention across the room.
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So how do we balance the conversation between orchestration and improvisation within a larger group, such as this one?
Shabaka: I think what you define as composition matures as you grow. But, for me, at this stage that I’m in, composition is about the ability to edit, whereas improvisation comes out and it is, it lives as it lands. So as soon as you’re able to refine something and make it progress, make it the greatest version of itself, then it becomes composition.
The soundcheck was incredibly intense, as the performance will be. How do you prepare for something like that?
Shabaka: It depends what the gig is. Where I am, or how intense or into myself I want to be. For my own gigs, I have a cold shower, because I like that jolt, my body getting alive. I do breathing exercises. Everyone has their own thing.
You do what you need at whatever stage you’re at. Sometimes I need to do more preparation than others. Sometimes I just go onstage and play saxophone.
Roscoe: Well, that brings up a point. We face a certain way before we play, and then there’s a moment of silence, and normally I might make a sound or something like that. And then we start our concerts.
We do it for that reason. Just to take a moment to relax. I think I fare better when I’m in the moment, I have to really make sure that I’m in the moment, and when I do that it forms me.
If I go out and play one evening real good, I’m not going to necessarily go out and do that again. I’m not trying to re-create it. For me, improvisation – good improvisation – is composition in real time. Because what you’re asking yourself to do when you go home and work on a piece of music, and you know how every note is going to sound – and so on – you have to be able to do that in real time. So getting yourself to that point is what interests me.
I gave some examples already of people that are able to do that. So it is closely related. I’m just trying to be in that company.
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Art Ensemble Of Chicago turns 50 this year – are you someone who looks back on those achievements? How do you react to the past when you have so much of it?
Roscoe: Man, I need some clones right now. I’m not reacting to anything! My head is so closed up. I feel like I’m probably at the best point of my life learning. I’m listening to everything.
I mean, Shabaka studied classical clarinet – I’m about ready to pull my clarinet back out again, so I might call you, and ask you what’s going on with it? It’s a great, great period for learning.
You’ve had a lengthy, very warm relationship with European audiences, what is it about coming back to London that attracts you?
Roscoe: Well, a lot time ago… we didn’t have the internet. We didn’t have any of that. We just figured it would take 20 years – at least – to get known as a musician. So we came here physically.
I’m just going around finding out things all the time, and I’m always amazed to watch how one thing gets re-connected to another and so on and so forth. I believe that you work hard on your music, and let everything else fall in its place.
Shabaka: It’s enriching when you’re able to stop and appreciate what you’re actually doing. I find that it the issue with being on tour at the moment is that it’s very easy to not appreciate what you’re actually doing, becoming fixated on the actual physical reality of waking up early, slogging around, getting into soundchecks. But when you actually stop and get a perspective on what you’re truly doing… it’s very enriching.
Roscoe mentioned the term ‘free jazz’ earlier – how do you react to these terms as musicians? Do you even view your music as jazz, or is that label simply a starting point?
Roscoe: I’m not interested in being boxed in to some category. I like the word ‘music’. I play music.
Shabaka: I feel the same way. Words are functional. If you’re looking at words, then words are language, and language develops as time goes on. The question of who develops the language, and at what point it becomes legitimised within broader society is a different question to do with power, and power relations. So the problem is the terms aren’t necessarily updated to align with the needs of the musicians or the vision of the musicians.
That’s the issue, because if if the musicians don’t have the power to update the terms then we just shouldn’t use them... because it’s always going to be terms that try to approach the music from a commodity form: this is something you can buy, because it’s labelled as such.
And what about – for instance – a lot of cultures have big naming ceremonies around the naming of children… there’s a point where a child doesn’t have a name, it’s a nameless form. As soon as you traditionally name the child it’s almost pointing it in a direction through the world.
So I’m interested in the point before the naming, where there’s all these possibilities of where it can go and what it can be and how it identifies. Music needs to always be in that state of being non-identifiable.
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'We Are On The Edge' is out now on Erased Tapes - purchase LINK.
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