Formed in 1966 in the city whose banner it would fly around the globe, the Art Ensemble of Chicago turned 50 in 2016. Of the longtime classic lineup – saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors, and percussionist Don Moye – two, Bowie and Favors, have passed away, and one, Jarman, has left the fold. The band soldiered on, for a time joined briefly and honorably by trumpeter Corey Wilkes and bassist Jaribu Shahid, but since 2010 has been almost completely silent.
Lately, though, signs of resurgence have appeared. The promotional copy for Message to Our Folks – a comprehensive overview of the band's history and music, written by Paul Steinbeck and newly published by the University of Chicago Press – cites the Art Ensemble as having "formed in 1966 and flourished until 2010," which is essentially accurate. But in February 2017, a new lineup – Mitchell and Moye, with veteran trumpeter Hugh Ragin and fast-rising bassist Junius Paul – played a three-night stint at London's cozy, funky Café Oto, earning eager praise from reviewers for the Financial Times, London Jazz News, and Jazzwise.
A brief scrap of video on YouTube indicates that the vaunted AECO energy endures, and already Oto has booked the Art Ensemble for a return engagement in October. Would it be too much to hope for a New York City booking? (Seems like this would have been a no-brainer for Big Ears, too…) In the meantime, I'll content myself with Steinbeck's book… and with the long string of cherished recordings left along the trail this incomparable group blazed so boldly.