Listening to the AACM and Its Ongoing Impact

(A shorter version of this review was originally published on I Care If You Listen on July 20, 2017.)

A Review of Bells for the South Side

BellsForTheSouthSideArtwork

Roscoe Mitchell. Bells for the South Side. September 2015. ECM 5711952, 2017. CD.

The album Bells for the South Side, released by ECM Records on June 16, 2017, features multi-instrumentalist, composer, and improviser Roscoe Mitchell’s four trio ensembles, which are presented individually and combined in new and fresh ways. This album documents two concerts that he gave in September 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago as part of an exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)—a collective of African-American musicians founded on the South Side of Chicago in 1965.

A founding member of the AACM, Mitchell later created the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the AACM’s flagship ensemble for many years. As George E. Lewis writes in his 2008 book A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, the AACM promoted individual development within the context of the community. For instance, Muhal Richard Abrams encouraged AACM members to develop their own compositional style and not to imitate others.

These same principles of cooperation and individuality are also highlighted on Bells for the South Side. The musicians of each trio contribute their own unique sound, and together they create an environment that is supportive of individual expression.

The album begins with “Spatial Aspects of the Sound,” a composition by Mitchell for two pianos, percussion, and piccolo. We hear warm, resonating chords on the two pianos and tubular bells, highlighting the sound of the bell—a theme that Mitchell frequently returns to throughout the album. Midway through the piece, the pianists pluck and strum the strings inside the piano, and the percussionist Kikanju Baku comes on stage and dances with sleigh bells and ankle bells (see the album preview above.) Baku’s dance is a reference to the late Malachi Favors, who often danced during Art Ensemble of Chicago performances. The piece ends with Mitchell performing a whole-tone passage on the piccolo.

The next piece’s title, “Panoply,” refers to a 1967 painting by Mitchell. Many of the AACM members engaged with other art forms in addition to music. Mitchell’s 1967 painting is densely structured with vibrant colors, characteristics that are in turn reflected in the musical composition. The piece starts with an ostinato passage on the xylophone, cymbal, and snare drum—a passage that returns throughout the work. This is the album’s first composition to use all of the musicians from the separate trios. However, the musicians don’t all play at once, but rather are divided into smaller groups. 

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Roscoe Mitchell, “Panoply,” 1967, Acrylic on canvas, Collection of Kay Michener.

“Prelude to a Rose” features the album’s first trio: Mitchell, composer and multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey, and trumpeter Hugh Ragin. This work is like a theatrical scenario. Following a slow, somber chorus, the performers engage in a humorous three-way conversation via their instruments. I’m reminded of Paul Steinbeck’s discussion of the intermedia elements incorporated by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Inspired by the happenings and performance art of the 1950s and 1960s, Art Ensemble performances included poetry, costumes, masks, face paint, gesture, and movement.

The second trio—consisting of Mitchell, keyboardist Craig Taborn, and percussionist Kikanju Baku—performs “Dancing in the Canyon,” which begins softly with chimes and Taborn’s mysterious electronics. When Mitchell enters midway through the piece, he leads the ensemble in an intensity structure—a massive buildup to a dense texture in which the musicians simultaneously play contrasting material.

“Ep 7849” is an exercise in transcending genre boundaries. At first, we hear a low brass instrument with thunderous bass drum. Then there is a playful electronic dance music section, followed by some hard rock with heavily distorted electric guitar. We couldn’t be any further from the initial style of “Spatial Aspects of the Sound.” Yet even at this moment, we can hear bells softly chiming in the distance.

Since the previous piece was an elaborate, through-composed transition, the title track “Bells for the South Side” feels like an arrival. It showcases what I take to be the specific bells alluded to in the title—Roscoe Mitchell’s percussion cage and the percussion set-ups of Don Moye and Malachi Favors. (See this video on Mitchell’s percussion cage.) I interpret the piece as a tribute to the Art Ensemble of Chicago—in particular, Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors, who weren’t alive to celebrate the AACM’s anniversary—and to the community of the South Side of Chicago, which played an active role in the AACM from the beginning. The musical work, which has a ternary form, begins with a short introduction of sleigh bells, an alarm, and chimes. A siren (Varèse?) signals the onset of the first section—a beautiful, majestic theme played on the piccolo trumpet. The contrasting second section has a low, ominous element recalling the previous piece (“Ep 7849”). The final section brings back the piccolo trumpet, though its melodic material is now transformed.

The third trio features two artists with whom Mitchell has collaborated for many years: percussionist Tani Tabbal and bassist Jaribu Shahid. They perform “Prelude to the Card Game, Cards for Drums, and the Final Hand,” which highlights the bass and drums—normally associated with the rhythm section—as melodic instruments. In the first section, Mitchell improvises over Shahid’s melodic line, followed by a virtuosic drum solo by Tani Tabbal. The last section returns to the initial melodic material, this time with all three musicians.

The fourth trio includes two of Mitchell’s colleagues at Mills College: multi-instrumentalist and composer James Fei and percussionist William Winant. “Six Gongs and Two Woodblocks” begins and ends with an imitative texture. Between these sections, Mitchell is featured as a master of extended techniques (microtones, multiphonics, circular breathing) against a colorful background provided by Fei on electronics and Winant on gongs and woodblock.

In the final piece, “Red Moon in the Sky,” all of the musicians gather to perform an extended intensity structure, like an expanded version of the one found in “Dancing in the Canyon.” The album ends with “Odwalla,” a classic of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

I highly recommend this recording. It demonstrates the same sort of mobility of genre that the AACM was able to accomplish. While celebrating the AACM’s rich history, it also points to the future. Moreover, the album draws attention to music’s potentially transformative role within the community. This is an important lesson for today’s listeners.

Further Reading

Lewis, George E. A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Steinbeck, Paul. Message to Our Folks: The Art Ensemble of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. [Link to Paul Steinbeck’s writings on the Art Ensemble of Chicago]

Further Listening

Art Ensemble of Chicago. A Jackson in Your House. Sunspots SPOT 543. CD. Original release, BYG/Actuel 529302, 1969. LP.

 Art Ensemble of Chicago. Live at Mandel Hall. Delmark DE 432. CD. Original release, Delmark DS-432/433, 1972. LP.

Mitchell, Roscoe. Roscoe Mitchell Sextet: Sound. Delmark DE-408, 1996. CD. Original release, Delmark DL-408, 1966. LP.