Famoudou Don Moye on the 50th anniversary of the Art Ensemble of Chicago

When I heard that Famoudou Don Moye and Roscoe Mitchell are coming to Melbourne to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, I looked through my record collection and unearthed Les Stances a Sophie, one of the Ensemble’s earliest – and most lauded – outputs. Five decades later, it remains a powerful statement, a magnificent work of art, unleashing the kind of raw energy that takes you by the throat (okay, by the shoulders) and shakes you to your core – not to mention that the proto-drum’n’bass anthem ‘Theme de Yoyo’ still sounds like it was recorded today – if not tomorrow.

Then I looked for the Ensemble’s latest album, We are on the Edge, the latest stop in what is an endless quest of musical exploration, with free improvisation being the tool to bring together the sounds of contemporary music and avant-jazz, blended together with funk and the echoes of the African diaspora, Famoudou Don Moye’s drumming being as exceptional and adventurous as ever, proof of his status as one of the most inventive rhythm masters of our time.

A lot have happened in the meantime between these two albums – The Art Ensemble of Chicago have, of course, carved a magnificent trajectory in music, spearheading a whole movement of avant-garde jazz, along with their fellow members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Sadly, Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors and Joseph Jarman are no longer with us, having passed in 1999, 2004 and this past January, respectively; butRoscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye keep the flame alight, surrounded by a cohort of exceptional, adventurous artists – from bass powerhouse Jaribu Shahid, to flautist Nicole Mitchell and radical poet Moor Mother. Their 50th Anniversary album is a perfect display of the ensemble being as relevant and urgent as ever, always open to ideas and possibilities. “We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Art Ensemble of Chicago; 1969 to 2019 and beyond,” says the restless percussionist, promising that today, as always, the Art Ensemble of Chicago stays true to its motto – and legacy:GREAT BLACK MUSIC / ANCIENT TO THE FUTURE.

Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye, the remaining original members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago | Photo: Barbara Barefield

How has your approach to music and art evolved through these five decades?

I have a greater respect for the discipline,endurance and focus required to play music. My perception of the meaning of the honesty of “art” is constantly evolving.

What is the greatest thing that you have learned in the process?

Patience, discipline and appreciation of our continuing creative efforts.

What do you miss the most about Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors and Joseph Jarman?

The collaboration of five minds on issues of quality of life, health, family, music and success.

What is the thing that you admire most about your fellow band members?

I admire the sacrifices that each individual has made for the group.

What is the thing that annoys you the most?

What annoys me most is not having enough time to realise all of our dreams and expectations. Life is short.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago at the 2018 EdgeFest on Saturday, Oct 20, 2018, at the Bethlehem United Church of God, 423 S. 4th Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan. | Photo: Barbara Barefield

How would you describe the Ensemble’s current incarnation?

Limitless musical potential within the complexity of a large ensemble.

What is your aspiration about the Ensemble’s future?

Limitless musical potential within the complexity of a large ensemble.

Do you feel nostalgic about the past?

I don’t have time for nostalgia. I get up every day enjoying the present and anticipating the future.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago (L-R: Famoudou Don Moye, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors) | Photo: Enid Farber

When you think of your time in Paris, 50 years ago, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

What comes to mind is my lack of clarity of thoughts and feeling about my musical future. After I joined the band, all my musical experiences became new, fresh, inspirational and challenging.

If you could go back in time, what would you have done differently?

I can’t go back in time. Forward motion to the next level and beyond.

The AACM was a product of its time, reflecting on cultural andsocial change – it was music as engaged citizenship; how do you see the role of art – and the artist – within the civil society and particularly in the current political context?

The role of me and my art specifically is to support world peace, Indigenous cultures and creative productivity for all human beings. I don’t deal with politics in any context.

Is improvisation a life skill?

Improvisation is an acquired skill. Humility, respect, kindness and a smile are life skills.

What does jazz mean to you?

No detailed comment –that word has always been inadequate!

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

The singing of the birds, the bees and the whispering of the plants and vegetables in my garden.

Famoudou Don Moye and Roscoe Mitchell are celebrating the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s 50th Anniversary with a performance at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, as part of the Supersense Festival of the Ecstatic, supported by the Necks

Roscoe Mitchell will also give a solo performance, as part of the Supersense Minimal program