Paul Steinbeck – Message to Our Folks: The Art Ensemble of Chicago

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This year marks the golden anniversary of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the flagship band of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Formed in 1966 and flourishing until 2010, the Art Ensemble distinguished itself by its unique performance practices members played hundreds of instruments on stage, recited poetry, performed theatrical sketches, and wore face paint, masks, lab coats, and traditional African and Asian dress. The group, which built a global audience and toured across six continents, presented their work as experimental performance art, in opposition to the jazz industry's traditionalist aesthetics. In Message to Our Folks, Paul Steinbeck combines musical analysis and historical inquiry to give us the definitive study of the Art Ensemble. In the book, he proposes a new theory of group improvisation that explains how the band members were able to improvise together in so many different styles while also drawing on an extensive repertoire of notated compositions. Steinbeck examines the multimedia dimensions of the Art Ensemble's performances and the ways in which their distinctive model of social relations kept the group performing together for four decades. Message to Our Folks is a striking and valuable contribution to our understanding of one of the world's premier musical groups.

Softcover,336 pages
Published February 14th 2017 by University of Chicago Press

The Art Ensemble of Chicago

The AEC Is an avant-garde jazz ensemble that grew out of Chicago in the late 1960s. Art ensemble is notable for its integration of musical styles that span jazzes entire history and further multi-instrumentalism. They have used what they term little instruments from bicycle horns, bells, birthday party noisemakers, wind chimes, and a vast array of percussion instruments. They also include costumes and face paint in performance. All these characteristics combine to make the ensemble's performances a visual spectacle along with an auditory one.

Back in the mid-60s the members of Art Ensemble performed under various and names but they began to play together and record in 1967.

Then members were all multi-instrumentalists and played many saxophones, many different flutes and clarinets. Their sound included the flugelhorn, the cornets, shofar and conch shells, with banjo and bass guitar and of course the piano and synthesizer. The group traveled to Paris where they became known as the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The group performed the soundtrack for the French movie Les Stances a Sophie and it has remained a cult classic ever since. In 1972 the ensemble returned to the United States with a quintet of Mitchell, Jarman, Bowie, Favors and Moye and remained together till 1993. There are two major releases from Atlantic records are Baptism and Fanfare for the Warriors. They gave each other freedom to pursue other musical interests and these conditions contributed to the longevity of the ensemble. They've released more than 20 studio recordings and several live albums between 1972 and 2004.

The makeup of the ensemble has since changed when Jarman retired from the group to focus on his practice of Zen. Bowie died of liver cancer and the group became a trio until 2003 when Jarman rejoined the ensemble. But in 2004 Favors died and the group was joined by a new trumpeter Corey Wilkes and bassist Jaribu Shahid and his group recorded a live CD called Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City.

Ensemble members embrace performance art and they believe this allows the band to move beyond the strict limits of jazz and tap into a wide variety of musical styles and influences. Music is more interesting when it is not limited to Western, African, Asian, South American instruments or anyone's instruments for that matter.