Fifty years after the creation of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. co-founder Roscoe Mitchell is taking on new recruits. The ensemble was formed in 1965 and, over the years, they have garnered praise for their avant-garde sound that successfully fused jazz with European art music and African folk styles. This year, the group is taking another leap this year by adding young, forward-thinking musicians to their ensemble. Among them is Philadelphia-based Moor Mother, a poet and experimental musician who has been collaborating with artists in the Philadelphia music scene for years.
Her work centers around ideas of freedom, future, and the abstract, and it is easy to see how she and Mitchell came together. As Rolling Stone‘s Hank Shteamer reports, the pair met at an experimental musical festival in Latvia in 2017. Mitchell learned about Moor Mother from his niece, while Moor Mother cited the Art Ensemble’s classic 1973 album, Fanfare for the Warriors, as a source of inspiration for her writing. Now, the two champions of experimentation are working together on the Art Ensemble’s first studio album in fifteen years, We Are On the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration.
Moor Mother’s verses are featured in the album’s title track, streaming now at Rolling Stone. She comes in at the four minute mark, underscored by a dense texture of staccato trumpets and rhythmic strings, declares: “We are on the edge / we are on the edge of victory.” Her verses highlight the reality black American experience in daily life and throughout history. It’s an exhalation of black progress that remarks on pain, joy, and euphoric moments of potential. For Moor Mother, it isn’t enough to celebrate “the edge of victory” without bringing forward the struggle to get there.
In describing her writing process to Shteamer, Moor Mother confessed that her words for We Are On the Edge were partially written ahead of time and partially improvised:
“I really wrote that on the plane and on the way to the studio. … I had just been immersed in myself and the world, so that just was the feeling that came out of me, that we are on the edge. We are almost there, all the work that you did, all the work Lester Bowie did, all these people that have passed that have been pillars in what we call African-American classical music. So it just felt so fitting for me coming into that. … We’re so close, kind of like that.”
Moor Mother also commented that the process of recording with the Art Ensemble was daunting but cathartic. During their session, she took a quick break from the studio and stepped outside. When she returned, performers in the room called out her words, “We are on the edge!” and any nerves she had surrounding her performance disappeared.
“It just gave me all the confidence, and just everything that I needed that I wasn’t getting from the so-called music world.”
In addition to Moor Mother, several more new collaborators joined the Art Ensemble for We Are On the Edge, including flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid and bassists Junius Paul and Jaribu Shahid. The upcoming album is set to be as experimental and genre-fusing as the groups prior work has been, and Mitchell is ready to play.
“Hey, I’m more excited about music right now than I’ve ever been in my life. There’s so much going on. I would like to be a part of that. So, yeah, I’m trying to keep one foot in front of the other in terms of what’s going on musically here. I think that this group comes from all the work that has been done previously in the past, with the beginning of the AACM and the members of this group that are second-generation AACM members and other musicians that I’m putting together.”
We Are On the Edge will be released on April 26, 2019 via Pi Recordings; the album can be pre-ordered here.
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