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Art Ensemble at Cafe Oto

AEC Cafe OtoAmid the strangest weather in 30 years, with sand from the Sahara and dust from Iberian wildfires turning the air in London dark red at lunchtime on the hottest October 16th since records were first kept, there was another surprise awaiting the audience for the second of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s three sold-out nights at Cafe Oto this week.

We had bought tickets expecting the regular four-piece line-up of the current AEC: co-founder Roscoe Mitchell (saxophones) and long-time member Famoudou Don Moye (drums and percussion) plus trumpeter Hugh Ragin and double bassist Junius Paul. What we encountered was the band extended to a septet by the presence of Mazz Swift (violin and vocals), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Silvia Bolognesi (double bass, the only one not visible in the photograph above). It was a special treat.

As you would expect, the unbroken 80-minute performance was a mixture of the prepared and the spontaneous, moving easily through contrasting ensemble passages which gave way to solos from each of the participants. The extra string players never felt like a bolt-on extra: they were fully integrated into the ensemble, playing equal roles in the composed passages, in the textured backgrounds and in the long, boilingly intense collective improvisation which prefaced the sign-off with the familiar descending cadences of “Odwalla”.

Mitchell played an astonishing sopranino solo during which he manipulated rapid sequences of harsh cries against a sustained whistling sound. Ragin alternated between regular and pocket trumpets, four-valve cornet and flugelhorn with unfailing relevance. Paul’s wonderfully emotional solo and his fast walking 4/4 with Moye in one passage evoked the spirit of the late Malachi Favors. On the opposite side of the stage, Bolognesi responded with an improvisation making energetic use of the bow. Swift sang with restrained warmth and she and Reid both left, in their solos and in the ensemble, the impression of instrumentalists of great character and inventiveness, virtuosos of unorthodox techniques and startling effects that contributed to the overall scheme. Throughout the set Moye reminded us of what wonderfully subtle and propulsive drummer he is.

The two sustained standing ovations that greeted the end of the set and the brief hymn-like encore were the equal of anything I’ve heard at Cafe Oto. It was an unforgettable end to a day marked by natural wonders.

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Adam Glasser #

    What an achingly wonderful description – wish I’d known about this. Heard them only once before in Paris 1980 with Joseph Jarman & Lester Bowie. It was unforgettable… Richard would you consider doing a monthly preview of recommended gigs?:)

    October 17, 2017
  2. MJG #

    That just sounds wonderful, thank you for whetting my appetite. I’m off there tonight and very much looking forward to it, especially to see Moye for the first time.

    I’m also hoping to see the string trio at the weekend. Any mention that they are appearing again with AEOC tonight?

    October 17, 2017
    • MJG #

      Just checked Tomeka Reid’s Facebook page and it appears that they will be there tonight. What a bonus

      October 17, 2017
  3. Tony Dudley-Evans #

    Went on Sunday night when it was just the quartet. I’m sad that I missed the larger ensemble, but still feel uplifted by the wonderful interaction on the Sunday night. Roscoe Mitchell’s long improvisation on soprano was amazing and I suspect that there were similarities with the sopranino solo Richard describes. Hugh Ragin provided interesting and appropriate alternative lines on the trumpet, and the powerful pulse provided by Don Moye and Junius Paul carried everything along brilliantly.

    October 18, 2017
  4. Charlie Rose #

    The quartet were marvellous on Sunday. Roscoe Mitchell spent the half hour before the start sitting on his chair cleaning every part of his instruments. He then sat and read a book. When the band joined him and he finally stood up, he unleashed a continuous note, enhanced with harmonics, that lasted a good ten minutes. The intensity of the performance was amazing. Ragin also played delicate and sparing brass bells. AACM.

    October 19, 2017
  5. GRAHAM ROBERTS #

    I saw the quartet version of the Art Ensemble a couple of times at the Cafe Oto earlier in the year and opted not to see them again so soon after. Had I known that the ensemble was to be expanded to include the string trio I would have booked to see them. However, Tomeka, Mazz and Silvia appeared at the Vortex last night and played two short, but inspired, sets, for the second of which they were joined by Alexander Hawkins on piano. Had he been there to hear it last night , the finale, a beautiful reading of ‘You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ‘Cos You Think You Know Me’, would surely have brought a nod of approval from Louis Moholo-Moholo!

    October 23, 2017

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