Friday, August 11, 2017

Artifacts Trio at Opera House Arts

A Note from Concert Curator Larry Blumenfeld
In 1965, pianists Muhal Richard Abrams and Jodie Christian, drummer Steve McCall and trumpeter Phil Cohran sent out postcards inviting leading Chicago musicians to meet on May 8th at Cohran’s South Side home. The organization that grew out of that meeting, which rejected both the artistic and commercial conventions of the day, was called the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians—best known today by it abbreviation, AACM.

More than a half-century later, these four letters symbolize sustenance and a sense of purpose to countless musicians steeped in jazz tradition yet unwilling to be confined by it. Early AACM members now form a roll call of distinguished African-American musicians, with National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Fellowships, MacArthur Foundation grants and prestigious academic appointments: among others, Abrams, Anthony Braxton, and Pulitzer Prize winner Henry Threadgill. The organization has grown from a collective of ambitious Chicago musicians to an engine of creative inspiration and practical outreach that has touched nearly all corners of modern music. And though the word “jazz” is notably absent from the AACM’s moniker—“Don’t give me a name,” Abrams famously said at that 1965 meeting—it’s hard to imagine the contours of jazz today without the AACM’s broad and deep influence. It is felt and heard wherever jazz gets played, and the effect is always liberating.

For flutist Nicole Mitchell, who first arrived in Chicago in 1990 and eventually served at the AACM’s first female president, the organization offered “a musical community that was mutually supportive of the idea of original music—a nurturing positive environment in which to bridge the familiar with the unknown.” Artifacts Trio, the group you’ll hear tonight, is a collective that joins Mitchell with cellist Tomeka Reid and drummer Mike Reed. All three musicians were shaped by their experiences within AACM’s ranks, and in turn they have helped define the future of its legacy. The trio was initiated by Tomeka Reid in 2015 for a concert in celebration of the AACM's 50th anniversary; its brilliant self-titled recording featured fresh interpretations of compositions by musicians affiliated with the organization. So what you hear when you listen to this group are the spirits and ideas of wise elders—founding fathers and mothers—alive through brand-new moments of creation born of the experiences of three distinguished and free-thinking musicians. This is honoring music, communal music, points on a continuum that can’t be broken.

18 years ago, four bold and smart women sat around a table and dreamed up a plan to breathe new life into a then-dilapidated Stonington Opera House. They formed Opera House Arts with a bold slogan: “Incite Art. Create Community.” Again, the impulse was provocative and collective. That I stumbled onto this glorious island around that same time, that the stars aligned under these clear and lovely skies enough to create the annual Deer Isle Jazz Festival still amazes me. It has enriched my life and my work in ways I can’t correctly express, and taught me some of the lessons upon which the AACM was founded. That OHA Producing Artistic Director Meg Taintor has embraced this festival’s mission with passion, urging it on, is just one more empowering example of organizational integrity in the service of unbound artistry. This year, too, the festival owes to the efforts of one of its earliest collaborators, Ron Watson. Like this festival and, by the way, the AACM, his gWatson Gallery has always been a place where musical and visual expressions are parts of one whole. It’s also worth noting that from its start though today, the AACM had a particular focus on education. Tonight’s opening band, 6 Blind Mice Combo, extends this festival’s long relationship with educator Steve Orlofsky and the award-winning bands of George Stevens Academy.

More than a half-century down the line, especially in an acoustically charmed space such as this, the AACM’s ethos is more resonant than ever.

Larry Blumenfeld (Curator) has been a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal for the past decade. His culture reporting and criticism have appeared in The Village Voice, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications, and at websites including Salon and Truthdig. He is editor-at-large and columnist for Jazziz magazine. He received the Helen Dance-Robert Palmer Award for Writing in 2011 from the Jazz Journalists Association. As a Katrina Media Fellow for the Open Society Institute, he began researching cultural recovery in New Orleans. With support from the Ford Foundation, he is working on a forthcoming University of California Press book about The Fight for New Orleans Jazz Culture Since the Flood, and What It Means for America. He was formerly honored with a National Arts Journalism Program Fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He lives with his wife, Erica, and son, Sam, in Brooklyn, NY.

He maintains a popular jazz blog, “Blu Notes,” hosted by Blouin Media, the publishers of Art & Auction magazine (