50 Years On, the Art Ensemble of Chicago Is Still Transforming

50 Years On, the Art Ensemble of Chicago Is Still Transforming

The Art Ensemble found a regular home at the Lucernaire theater, performing multiple nights each week. The five musicians pooled the money they made, putting a little into a collective pot after every gig, and stayed contentedly in Paris for more than two years.

The group made a number of albums for small labels during that time, many of which have withstood the test of time — particularly “Tutankhamun” and “People in Sorrow.” They set up the ensemble for a brief relationship with Atlantic Records upon its return to the United States in 1972, bringing the band its widest popular reach.

In dealings with labels, as with venues, the Art Ensemble resisted manipulation or inadequate compensation. “We wanted to have more control over our own destinies,” Mr. Mitchell said in an interview, “because we had looked at what had happened to some of the great masters of our music, who were out there on their own and didn’t really fare that well.”

At Big Ears in March, from the stage of the Tennessee Theater wafted buoyant grooves played by three double-bassists at once, and a shudder of rain forest sounds (this was some indistinguishable combination of Christina Wheeler’s electronics, Mr. Moye’s hand drums, and the small cohort of percussionists beside him). Eventually, Camae Ayewa, known as Moor Mother, began reciting poetry. If Jarman, a multi-instrumentalist and poet, used to recite verses that challenged the listener in a playful, quizzical fashion — like a free-jazz Dalai Lama — Ms. Ayewa was doing something else. Her voice swelled with strength and fury, and it came at you with the force of an arrow. “Take us back to our homeland,” she demanded. “Teach us our language.”

Ms. Ayewa, whose career as Moor Mother has just taken off in the past few years, is among the youngest of the Art Ensemble’s new members. The group also includes Fred Berry, a trumpeter who played in Mr. Mitchell’s original quartet back in the mid-1960s, and Jaribu Shahid, who first joined the Art Ensemble in the mid-2000s.

That was around the last time the group put out an album, and it seemed to be on indefinite hiatus until a return to the road — in sextet form — a couple of years ago. Asked what led him and Mr. Moye to bring on such a large team of new musicians, most of them from younger generations, Mr. Mitchell alluded to the importance of continued exchange. “The A.A.C.M. sparked a second generation of younger musicians,” Mr. Mitchell said, “and they’ve now become a part of us.”

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