If it weren't for the existence of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), groundbreaking jazz artists like Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Pete Cosey, and Henry Threadgill might never have expanded the boundaries of the genre. The non-profit organization, founded in 1965 by pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams, pianist Jodie Christian, drummer Steve McCall and composer Phil Cohran, was designed to support and encourage jazz performers, composers and educators, often people whose original music could be challenging or difficult.
At least, that's the impression that people might have of the AACM. But according to Tomeka Reid, a cellist who became a member of the AACM in the early 2000s, that reputation for fostering largely avant-garde artists isn't entirely accurate.
"A lot of people associate (the AACM) with free jazz, but if you listen to the music, they wrote tunes, too," Reid says. "I don't think the aesthetic is just to be challenging; it's to express who you are inside, to bring out whatever that is. All the composers are multi-faceted, so they're going to write the blues, or a tune, or something totally atonal. It's just about playing as yourself, and not being dictated to by what other people think black music is, or what other people think you should be writing because of what instrument you play. The AACM has a very wide aesthetic."
As a salute to AACM and those multi-faceted composers, Reid teamed up with drummer Mike Reed and flutist Nicole Mitchell in a group called Artifacts, and released an album of songs by Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, McCall, Abrams, and more in 2015.
The playing on the album is dazzling, moving between entirely atonal moments where all three players seem to be soloing at once and gorgeously melodic ensemble playing, and it lends credence to Reid's assertion that the compositions that AACM members created could be beautiful and challenging.
Onstage, as one might expect from a group of adventurous players performing boundary-expanding music, the trio toys with the structures of their songs, but it's not as wildly improvisatory as one might think.
"Generally, it's a case-by-case basis for which pieces we stay to the form of and which pieces we open up," Reid says. "For example, I feel like the Braxton tune ('Composition 23B'), we'll work in our improv, but it stays in the same form, where the 'Clowns' piece by Leroy Jenkins, that's subject to any number of interpretations. We really open that one up. So sometimes we leave the written material completely."
Reid remembers joining the AACM as a pivotal point in her life.
"When I first moved to Chicago in 2000, I wasn't aware of the organization at all," she says. "I got my undergrad degree in classical music, and I was pursuing a classical masters in cello, but I'd also met Nicole Mitchell. She was interested in improvising, and I also had a mentor who was encouraging me to improv, and she's the one who introduced me to the AACM. We would play at (tenor sax player and AACM member) Fred Anderson's Velvet Lounge, which was a really important place for a lot of the musicians coming up at that time. Fred served as a mentor to a lot of us, and he would give us a space to workshop ideas."
Reid says that the edict of the AACM was always constant: Figure out who you are.
"The tenet of the whole thing was, find your own voice and write original music," she says. "It was, 'Find yourself musically, and through that journey, you're finding yourself personally.' You're encouraged to find new sounds on your instrument, to learn how to listen, to learn how to communicate musically and personally."
But the theory behind the AACM wasn't the only thing that gave Reid a career direction. "I feel like I learned a lot just seeing people leading their own bands, especially women leading their own bands, and writing their own music," she says. "I didn't really understand when I was in it that that's what I was getting from it, but now that I've moved a little further in my career, I reflect back and realize there are a lot of things I learned from being in that environment."
As for the composers on the Artifacts album, Reid says there was no hard-and-fast method for choosing which ones to cover.
"I think we just picked the pieces we liked," she says. "We brought in compositions we liked and worked from there. We didn't have a plan to deal with Roscoe specifically or Braxton specifically, it was just, 'I like this piece, I think it would sound nice with the ensemble.' Let's try it out and see if it works."
The three members of Artifacts live in different parts of the country, and so it's difficult for them to get together often, but there's a second album in the works, perhaps with the trio's own material on display.
"That's the part that's been hard, with us living in other places and being active with our own work," she says. "But hopefully it will happen this year. It's just finding the time and agreeing on the repertoire. Do we want to be a repertoire band, or do we want to think about a new direction we want to go in?"