AACM 30th Anniversary Festival

Getz Theater, December 1-3

Not all the music at the 30th anniversary celebration of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians was–to quote its motto–“great black music.” A lot of it was simply so-so. The three-night festival featured sets by 12 groups and aimed to provide an opportunity both to recognize the AACM’s past achievements and to assess its current standing. The organization’s accomplishments are considerable and unique. No other group can boast so many members who have gone on to international fame, a school that has served as an important training ground for young musicians, or such remarkable longevity. But this festival also raised some serious questions about the once and future AACM.

The opening performance by the organization’s most renowned group, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, was largely a disappointment. Its main strength and main weakness can be summed up the same way: everyone sounded terrific individually. Saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell offered a stunning display of extended sounds through circular breathing, and bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut consistently played with drive. Trumpeter Lester Bowie contributed some fiery phrases, and drummer Famoudou Don Moye delivered his trademark crackling crispness. But for a group that came to prominence emphasizing layered textures over discrete lines and group interplay over individual virtuosity, the set seemed oddly lacking in empathic and inventive interaction. Part of the problem may have been the absence of saxophonist Joseph Jarman, who’s on an extended hiatus; reducing a group like this from a quintet to a quartet involves more than simply a statistical adjustment. The set didn’t hang together–it was sometimes exciting but seldom moving.

If the Art Ensemble’s set wandered, the next night’s performance of the New Horizons Ensemble worked wonderfully from beginning to end. The show featured an expanded instrumental lineup for “Proof That the Evidence Was Missing,” a work written for the occasion by leader Ernest Khabeer Dawkins. Added to the group’s nucleus of alto saxophone (Dawkins), trumpet (Ameen Muhammad), trombone (Steve Berry), bass (Yosef Ben Israel), and drums (Avreeayl Ra) were a second bass (Fred Hopkins) and drums (Reggie Nicholson). The piece began slowly with a simple, chantlike theme stated in unison by the horns; it then gathered steam, settling into a solid, up-tempo groove as the theme gave way to solos. What ultimately distinguished this set wasn’t memorable melodies or brilliant soloing. Rather, the writing was so simple and lucid that it enabled the musicians to achieve a seemingly relentless momentum. The expanded lineup resulted in unusually rich and varied textures, and the group played cohesively throughout. Nicholson, whose drumming also elevated the set by the Colson Band, was masterful: combining the lithe strength of a middle-distance runner with the fluid grace of a dancer, his playing was irresistibly springy and buoyant. Dawkins’s solo, which was in part unaccompanied, was a model of disciplined intensity, deepening the piece without overwhelming it. And Fred Hopkins–whose bass playing also dazzled in sets by the Colson Band, the Clarinet Choir, and the Ari Brown/Vandy Harris Unit–played this unwieldy instrument with all the immediacy and expressiveness of a singer.

There were other fleeting highlights during the three-night festival. Tenor saxophonist Vandy Harris, in a set that drifted in and out of focus, played a series of phrases at once corrosive and delicate, conjuring up a bird in distress. Trumpeter Rasul Saddik–in a set with the Colson Band that suggested a play in which the supporting actors are brilliant but the lead performances unremarkable–unleashed one spiky, agitated solo after another. And the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (Kahil El’Zabar on drums and kalimba, Edward Wilkerson Jr. on tenor saxophone and clarinet, and Joseph Bowie on trombone and congas) played a set that seemed disjointed and truncated, nevertheless producing moments of hushed intimacy.

But overall the festival was a frustrating experience. Why, for instance, doesn’t the AACM devote the same care to production as it does to music? An arts organization that claims world-class status shouldn’t leave its audience shivering on the sidewalk until the time a concert is scheduled to begin. It shouldn’t begin a concert an hour late and then as a result have to limit the final act (8 Bold Souls) to only a few minutes. And it shouldn’t, as the AACM did Saturday night, fail to notify prospective concertgoers–before they have paid $20–of a notable no-show (saxophonist Anthony Braxton, whose scheduled duet with trombonist George Lewis was much anticipated). Things that might have had a perverse charm in the AACM’s early days now seem irritating.

Another question concerns artistic direction. Why did so much of the music at these concerts sound like what one might have heard at an AACM concert 5, 10, or 20 years ago? The AACM has historically championed the daring and the visionary. But if these performances represent today’s musical vanguard, the avant-garde seems in dire need of its own avant-garde.

Finally, a question persists concerning race. While the tag “great black music” is certainly understandable in light of the social climate of the 60s, is it something the organization wants to carry into the next century? Tenor saxophone giant Dexter Gordon, for one, rejected this racial modifier, noting, for example, that “many of the harmonic structures of bebop come from Stravinsky, Handel, and Bartok.” And if this is great black music, where does that leave black musicians, conductors, and composers who work with symphony orchestras–toiling in the field of great white music?

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