The Art Ensemble of Chicago Continues to Break the Mold

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The legendary jazz ensemble is still proving strong after 50 years.

Famoudou Don Moye, the longtime percussionist for the Art Ensemble of Chicago, one of the most innovative jazz groups in musical history, remembers a lesson he learned from one of his heroes, renowned saxophonist Johnny Griffin.

“I was in his dressing room after a concert, and he was upset,” the 72-year-old Moye recalls. “Everything Griffin played sounded brilliant to my ears, but it wasn’t good enough for him.”

Nice Guys (1979); Recorded in West Germany, the ensemble’s first album on the celebrated jazz label ECM proved the group was on the cutting edge of modern avant-garde jazz, from the abstract minimalism of tracks like “Folkus” to the wild, anything-goes ruckus of “597 - 59.” Courtesy Art Ensemble of Chicago

All these years later, Moye tries to hold himself to the same standard––never get complacent, keep trying for something that’s forever out of your reach. That might as well be the mission statement of the AEC. Since the collective released their first album in 1969, they’ve been searching for a sound, what they’ve long dubbed “ancient to the future.” The music has always been wild and unpredictable, an anything-goes hodgepodge of seemingly dissonant tones, melodic ideas, and even the bellows of found instruments like bicycle horns and toy train whistles.

“It’s always evolving, always changing,” says the group’s founder, 78-year-old saxophonist and flautist Roscoe Mitchell. “Serious students of music realize they’re never going to learn everything in one lifetime.”

Full Force (1980); Full Force is widely considered to be a high-water mark for the quintet and their most accessible record. From big-band horns to bold tonal experiments, it’s a crowd-pleaser. Courtesy Art Ensemble of Chicago

Moye and Mitchell are the only members of the 1969 lineup who are still performing––trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors, and saxophonist Joseph Jarman have all passed away––but the AEC is still going strong, with the two remaining musicians continuing to tour the globe. To commemorate 50 years of musical evolution, they are releasing a two-disc set this spring titled We Are on the Edge: A Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration––one disc is a studio recording of new material and reworkings of previous AEC compositions, and the other is of a live performance recorded last October in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with a 15-piece ensemble of musicians and spoken-word performers. Like the group’s best collaborations, the latest songs sound both intimately familiar and unlike anything you’ve ever heard. Imagine every genre of African American music––jazz, blues, gospel––woven together to make something fresh and surprising and entirely new.

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Tutankhamun (1969); Nothing is conventional in this four-song collection, and though the group was only beginning to find their identity, they were playing like seasoned veterans. As one critic put it, this album takes the listener on a “journey into the possibilities of sound.” Courtesy Art Ensemble of Chicago

“It’s the cultural experiences of our fathers and grandfathers,” says Moye, “the music we heard in our communities and growing up in our homes every day. It’s all connected.”

Mitchell and Moye have a renewed sense of the music’s importance and what it means to their audiences. “Most folks who come up to me after a concert, they don’t just tell me they liked the music,” Mitchell says. “They say they need the music. They need it.”