Over the last decade or so, Cafe OTO has secured an impressive hit rate of presenting bona fide free jazz originators from across the pond – but the Art Ensemble Of Chicago have remained a stubborn fixture at the top of the want list. As such, excitement is riding high for this rare three-date UK residency by the current incarnation – a quartet featuring original member, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, longstanding percussionist Famoudou Don Moye, veteran trumpeter Hugh Ragin and upcoming Chicagoan double-bassist Junius Paul.
Mitchell initiates this final night's set with a nod to performance art, standing stock still while the house falls into silence and finally signalling the music's start with a single, isolated parp on the soprano. From there, the sound fans out into a spectral improvisation of glistening filaments, lent shape by Paul's sonorous, woody filigrees – but it's only a few minutes until the quartet ascends to a seething tumult of pure energy. Mitchell and Ragin, both seated, weave complex, ecstatically joyous lines: Mitchell pouring out endless, jagged, tumbling shapes on the alto with astonishingly sustained circular breathing, while Ragin adds impossibly high, tight trills from the piccolo trumpet.
Smashing it all forward is Don Moye – a captivating mystic, robed, bejewelled and utterly in tune with his rhythmic imperative, driving the drums with a bullish, muscular insistence that nevertheless always dances with a jovial swing. The energy builds, the solos flash by, until the quartet break into an irascible pantomime, crying out "hey, it's Friday night!" and "yeah, man!" partly ragging the spellbound audience for its pin-drop reticence, partly just having fun. As the wave breaks, there's an interlude that harks back to the Ensemble's use of 'little 'instruments', with Paul tinkling the shimmering glockenspiel while Moye rattles out tiny, detailed telegraphs on metallic bells and gongs. Finally, Paul strikes up a slithering bass hook and the horns spell out the Ensemble's familiar touch-down melody, 'Odwalla (The Theme') as an hour of transcendent music-making draws to a close. A brief, boisterous blast of an encore seals the deal. It's been real.
– Daniel Spicer
– Photos by Roger Thomas