These days a dreary familiarity hangs over music like a cloud. Rock is haunted by 60s relics like Clapton, the Dead, the Stones. Symphony orchestras almost never perform works by composers who have the occupational misfortune of being alive. And jazz, once associated with individuality and innovation, is dominated by well-dressed but faceless young mimics of 40s and 50s bop.

Like any living thing, music thrives only by renewing itself; as Ezra Pound put it, artists must “make it new.” Otherwise the art form becomes exhausted: gesture gives way to mannerism, style to fussiness, and emotion to sentiment. One of the best hopes for jazz’s continued renewal remains the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Founded in the 60s, the AACM has provided an artistic community for adventurous musicians. As an incubator of talent, the AACM has few peers anywhere in the arts.

Perhaps the best analogy in Chicago is to the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Both the AACM and Steppenwolf were started by small groups of like-minded performers. Both have produced performers of striking talent and originality. And members of both have gone on to earn international acclaim. But while Steppenwolf’s reputation is certainly well deserved, the record of the lesser-known AACM is in many respects even more impressive. The AACM has nurtured more performers over a longer period of time. It has promoted a greater variety of work: while one can fairly speak of a “Steppenwolf style” (physically aggressive, emotionally volatile), any reference to a single “AACM style” would be ludicrous. Where Steppenwolf perpetually struggles with finding worthwhile new material, AACM musicians have solved that problem by writing their own. And while some more well-known Steppenwolf members–such as Roseanne regular Laurie Metcalf–have made career decisions of dubious artistic merit, those AACM musicians who’ve achieved renown have remained true to their original vision of artistic innovation and excellence.

This is not to say that AACM musicians are without faults. Some are long-winded, confusing quantity with quality. Some tend to mistake the exotic for the fresh. And some tend to equate humorlessness with seriousness. But these are relatively minor flaws when measured against the organization’s enduring record.

Last Saturday night at University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall, the cloud of familiarity hanging over music lifted temporarily–and spectacularly–during the performance of Edward Wilkerson’s Shadow Vignettes. The subject of much critical attention (admiring profiles appear in two fine books, Francis Davis’s Outcats and Reader contributor John Corbett’s Extended Play), Wilkerson attended the University of Chicago in the early 70s, coming under the influence of such AACM musicians as Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, and members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He embodies the breadth and versatility associated with the AACM. He has performed not only with jazz groups but also with such blues artists as Albert King and such doo-wop artists as Little Anthony. His instruments include the tenor saxophone, the clarinet, and the piano. He performs in a wide variety of settings, from his celebrated medium-size ensemble 8 Bold Souls to fellow AACM-er Kahil El’Zabar’s acclaimed trio, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. And he writes and arranges almost all the material for his two groups.

Even by AACM standards, Shadow Vignettes are way off the beaten path. The string section includes four violins, a cello, and two basses. There’s a reed section of four saxophones, a brass section of four trombones and four trumpets, a percussion section of a drummer and three miscellaneous percussionists (one of whom occasionally doubles on harp), and a male or female vocalist on some numbers. The special guest artist at last Saturday’s performance was preeminent jazz flutist James Newton. Finally there’s Wilkerson himself–writer, arranger, and conductor for this musical maelstrom.

Over the course of two generous sets–featuring entirely original material except for the finale, Al Green’s “Love and Happiness”–Wilkerson and his cohorts never lacked clarity. Despite the size of the ensemble, the music never seemed crowded; multiple musical lines were surrounded by breathing space. Moreover it was never heavy; crisp execution, spacious writing, effective use of the lighter instruments (flute, violins, and trumpets), and drummer Reggie Nicholson’s airy playing kept it nimble and supple throughout. Finally, the music never lapsed into big-band cliche. While Wilkerson drew upon both the music and the raucous spirit of big bands as diverse as Duke Ellington’s and Sun Ra’s, he never mimicked them. Instead he made something new. All of this, though, really only explains why this concert was not a failure. The reasons for its success are both more subtle and more significant.

When a jazz ensemble of this size plays well together, it’s like an idealized version of a large social gathering–say, Thanksgiving dinner. Imagine not the tedium and conflict that frequently accompany family gatherings, but instead an evening in which everyone listens to and supports everyone else, everyone has an opportunity to speak, and everyone realizes that only through contributing to the ongoing group dialogue can he become most completely himself. This concert embodied those rare qualities.

The critical ingredient was interplay. Just as Matisse and Rothko recognized that the essential quality of a color is determined by the surrounding colors, Wilkerson recognizes that the essential quality of a musical sound is determined by the surrounding sounds. The essence of his music isn’t in this instrument or that, in this musical line or that: it’s in the spaces where they meet. While Saturday’s concert abounded in individual highlights (including an incendiary solo by alto saxophonist Ernest Dawkins in “Strollin’,” a wonderfully vocal solo by trumpeter Rod McGaha in “Defender,” and consistently expressive playing by Newton), it would be a mistake to conceive of this music in terms of individual performances; its heart was in the group. In that respect Shadow Vignettes share common ground with other magnificent exponents of large-ensemble African and African American music, from the Nigerian juju band King Sunny Ade and His African Beats to the Chicago gospel choir of Reverend Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers.

The interplay at this concert was not limited to the musicians. Only within an actively engaged listener could the music’s various lines achieve integration. At a pop concert, the dominant message is frequently one of narcissism, relegating the listener to the role of admirer. When Mick Jagger struts across the stage, the message is “Look at me.” The Shadow Vignettes’ message was fundamentally different: “Come join us in this musical house we are building.”

This concert wasn’t flawless. The two vocal numbers undermined momentum. From time to time passages in the instrumental numbers went on too long. And Wilkerson’s treatment of “Love and Happiness” was ill-considered: employing an often breakneck tempo, the arrangement sapped the song of its juicy groove without substituting anything of comparable power. But such a lively and wildly ambitious mix of successes and flaws is vastly preferable to today’s more commonplace jazz fare: flawless but sterile performances of 40s and 50s bop, music on which construction was finished decades ago.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.