Nicole Mitchell has been noted as “a compelling improviser of wit, determination, positivity, and tremendous talent...on her way to becoming one of the greatest living flutists in jazz,” (Peter Margasak, Chicago Reader). A creative flutist, composer and bandleader, Mitchell placed first as Downbeat magazine’s Rising Star Flutist 2005-2007, and was awarded “Chicagoan of the Year 2006” by the Chicago Tribune. The founder of the critically acclaimed Black Earth Ensemble and Black Earth Strings, Mitchell’s compositions reach across sound worlds, integrating new ideas with moments in the legacy of jazz, gospel, pop, and African percussion to create a fascinating synthesis of “postmodern jazz.” With her ensembles, as a featured flutist, and as a music educator, Mitchell has been a highlight at art venues, festivals throughout Europe, the U.S. and Canada. Mitchell has performed with creative luminaries including George Lewis, Miya Masaoka, Lori Freedman, James Newton, Bill Dixon and Muhal Richard Abrams. She also works on ongoing projects with Anthony Braxton, Ed Wilkerson, David Boykin, Rob Mazurek, Hamid Drake and Arveeayl Ra. Co-President of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Mitchell works to raise respect and integrity for the improvised flute, and to continue the bold and exciting directions that the AACM has charted for decades. She was commisioned in 2007 through Chamber Music America’s New Works Creation and Presentation program and the recipient of Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Music Composition (2005, 2002). Mitchell is thankful to mentors and teachers including: Jimmy Cheatham, Donald Byrd, Brenda Jones, James Newton, George Lewis, John Eaton, Fred Anderson, Ernest Dawkins, John Fonville, Susan Levitin, Mary Stolper, Yochanan Sebastian Winston and Edward Wilkerson.
Black Earth Ensemble (BEE), founded by Mitchell in 1997, is a forum for her compositions and creative vision. BEE is a multi-genre, multi-generational celebration of the African American cultural legacy. Black Earth Ensemble has performed at the Sons d'hiver Festival (Paris), Guelph Festival (Canada), Le Labbre Nude Festival (Rome), Kerava Jazz Festival (Finland) and Nouve Forme Festival (Verona). With Black Earth Ensemble, Mitchell has recorded three critically acclaimed CDs: Vision Quest, Afrika Rising and Hope, Future and Destiny. Mitchell also leads Black Earth Strings, an acoustic quartet that brings African rhythms, contemporary sounds and swinging improvisation to a chamber music setting.
Nicole Mitchell has performed as featured soloist with the Orbert Davis Chicago Jazz Philharmonic at the Auditorium Theater and at Millineum Park in Chicago. (2005-6) In December 2005, Nicole Mitchell performed a special duo concert with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams in celebration of the AACM's 40th Anniversary in Chicago. Mitchell performed as a soloist with composer George E. Lewis and the International Composer's and Improvisers Ensemble (2003) in Munich, Germany. In Chicago, Mitchell has also been a featured soloist with Chicago's CUBE Ensemble, University of Chicago's Jazz X-Tet, the New Black Repertory Ensemble of Columbia College.
In mid-November Mitchell premiered a program commissioned by Downtown Sound Gallery which she titled "Qualities of My Father: A Tribute to Michael E. Mitchell." The performance was written for an eleven piece acoustic ensemble inspired by her father's love for classical music and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Nicole Mitchell is premiering a suite of pieces inspired by science fiction writer Octavia Butler's award winning novel "Dawn." This piece has been commissioned by Chamber Music America's New Works: Creation and Presentation Program funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. In August, the Jazz Institute and the Chicago Cultural Center commisssioned Mitchell to premiere a tribute to Alice Coltrane which she titled "Many Paths to the Sea." The performance was held at Chicago's beautiful Millineum Park. Mitchell was also an Illinois Arts Council fellow for music composition (2005, 2002). Her piece "Dream Deferred for piano" inspired by Robert Shumann's "Scenes from Childhood," premiered at Ravinia in fall 2006. In November 2003, Mitchell unveiled Vision Quest: Hope, Future and Destiny (VQ), a multi-dimensional community project featuring Black Earth Ensemble and a cast of over fifty people in dance, video, acting with live music. This major project was sponsored by the Jazz Institute of Chicago through the support of the Illinois Arts Council.
Mitchell currently directs other projects which include: Tindanga Mama (an multi-generational, all-woman ensemble), the Nicole Mitchell Quartet (featuring her solo work on flute with vibes, bass and drums), and the Aaya Sensation (a group showcasing the talents of Mitchell's teen daughter). In addition to her own projects, she performs with the collective, Frequency (with Ed Wilkerson Jr., Arveeayl Ra and Harrison Bankhead), the Indigo Trio (with Hamid Drake and Harrison Bankhead), the Exploding Star Orchestra (project of Rob Mazurek), the Orbert Davis Jazz Philharmonic, the New Black Reperatory Ensemble (of Columbia College), the Great Black Music Ensemble (of the Chicago AACM), the David Boykin Expanse (with David Boykin, Josh Abrams, Jim Baker and Mike Reed and Anthony Braxton's 12tet. Her newest project is founding and directing the AACM Creative Youth Orchestra began in fall 2006.
Mitchell has done a variety of residencies, workshops and panel discussions in Europe and the U.S. with a focus on jazz and creative music. This spring, Mitchell is working on a residency with local musicians from Paris. The project, called Unity Orchestra, will feature her compositions at the Banlieues Bleues festival in April 2007. In 2005, she was a faculty member of the Vancouver Creative Music Institute (Canada) and the Sherwood Flute Institute (Chicago). In June 2006 and 2007, Mitchell returned to Vancouver to work with a large ensemble of talented high school musicians and lead their performance at the Vancouver Jazz Festival. Mitchell has also done residencies at Guelph, Canada, and University of Michigan. At home in Chicago Mitchell is part-time music faculty of University of Illinois, Circle. She also recently accepted the position as Jazz Ensemble Director at Wheaton College.
RCB Arts Management
Nicole Mitchell solo (flute, alto flute, bass flute, piccolo, vocals, poetry)
Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Strings (BES)
Tomeka Reid cello, Renee Baker violin, viola, Josh Abrams bass, Nicole Mitchell flutes, composition
Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble (BEE)
Quartet to Nonet (varied instrumentation)
Black Earth (Nonet): Nicole Mitchell flutes, David Boykin sax
David Young trumpet, Tomeka Reid cello
Jeff Parker guitar or Justin Dillard piano
Ugochi or Mankwe Ndosi vocals
Josh Abrams bass, Marcus Evans drums
Arveeayl Ra percussion
Nicole flutes, Hamid Drake drums and
Harrison Bankhead bass
Frequency (improv collective)
Nicole Mitchell flutes, Ed Wilkerson tenor sax, Harrrison Bankhead bass and Arveeayl Ra drums
Nicole Mitchell Quartet
Nicole Mitchell flutes, Jason Adasiewicz vibes,
Josh Abrams bass and drums (rotation)
Executive Producer/Improvising Flutist/Composer/Bandleader
Black Unstoppable, Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble, Delmark Records 2007
Hope, Future and Destiny, Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, Dreamtime Records, 2004
Afrika Rising, Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, Dreamtime Records, 2002
Vision Quest, Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, Dreamtime Records, 2001
Improvising Flutist/Collaborating Composer
Live in Montreal, Indigo Trio, Greenleaf Music, 2007
Frequency, Frequency, Thrill Jockey Records, 2006
Samana, Samana, Storywiz Records 1996
Duo with Deer Isle, Nicole Mitchell solo flute, Dreamtime Records Jan 2008
We are All From Somewhere Else, Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra, Thrill Jockey Records 2007
Bindu, Hamid Drake and Bindu, Rogue Art Records, 2005
Duets, Mike Reed, 482 Music, New York, 2006
Age Ensemble, Daniel Givens, Aesthetics Records, 2003
47th Street Ghost, David Boykin Expanse, Dreamtime Records, 2002
Evidence of Life on Other Planets Vol 1, David Boykin Expanse, Thrill Jockey Records 2001
Evidence of Life on Other Planets Vol 2, David Boykin Expanse, BoxMedia 2000
Black Earth Ensemble: Cause and Effect
Black Earth Ensemble: Love Has No Boundaries
Black Earth Ensemble: Navigator
Black Earth Ensemble: Wondrous Birth
Black Earth Ensemble: Xenogenesis
Nicole Mitchell Quartet: Adaptability
Nicole Mitchell Quartet: Yearning
Black Earth Strings: Aaya's Rainbow
Black Earth Strings: Wade
Indigo Trio: Afrika Rising
Indigo Trio: Wheatgrass
Nicole Mitchell solo: Day with Boats
Nicole Mitchell: An Improvised Life, by Peter Margasak
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By Peter Margasak August 3, 2007 WHEN NICOLE MITCHELL fell in love with jazz, she fell hard. It ...By Peter Margasak
August 3, 2007
WHEN NICOLE MITCHELL fell in love with jazz, she fell hard. It was 1986, and she was in her second year of college. She’d been studying classical flute since age 15 and played in two different youth orchestras. But then she took a class in jazz improvisation from the great trombonist Jimmy Cheatham, and within months she was spending most of her free time on the streets of San Diego, improvising for spare change.
It must have been something to encounter her as a busker. From the very beginning she took a generous, open-ended approach to improvisation—she wasn’t just embroidering the familiar themes of jazz standards. “I had the idea of creating a melody for each person that walked by, reflecting on how people seemed to me,” she says. “I was trying to find a way to communicate with people through the improvisation. It wasn’t necessarily that I was trying to play jazz. I was just trying to connect.”
Mitchell, 40, has since become one of the most exciting jazz soloists and composers in the world. Her path has been rocky—she’s had to confront racism, a male-dominated jazz community, and instructors and colleagues who didn’t see a place in the music for her instrument. But she’s surmounted those obstacles using the same gifts that make her such a compelling improviser: wit, determination, positivity, and tremendous talent.
She moved to Chicago in 1990 and is now a vital part of the local scene, both as a performer and as an educator and organizer. People outside that scene are starting to notice, too. For three years running she’s won the “Rising Star” award for flutists in the Down Beat magazine critics’ poll, and every couple months she flies to Europe to play her music or lead a workshop. By this fall she’ll have appeared on five new recordings in just over a year, both under her own name and in collaborative projects. This summer at New York’s Vision Festival, arguably the most important free-jazz fest in the U.S., she debuted her Xenogenesis Suite, an ambitious piece inspired by the writings of Afrofuturist Octavia Butler and commissioned by Chamber Music America, a prestigious organization that principally promotes chamber music but has increasingly been awarding grants to adventurous jazz composers. And on Thursday, August 9, she’ll debut another suite, this one dedicated to Alice Coltrane, at a free concert in Millennium Park featuring her Black Earth Orchestra—a 12-piece version of her regular Black Earth Ensemble—with guest pianist Myra Melford.
BORN AND RAISED in Syracuse, New York, Mitchell moved with her family to Anaheim, California, when her father, an engineer, took a new job. She was eight, and for the first time she was made painfully aware of the color of her skin. “When I walked outside of my house I had neighbors that would actually tell me to move away from their property because I was downgrading its value by standing in front of it,” she says. After the TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots aired in 1977, she was chased by classmates brandishing lengths of rope like whips. “I remember running up to one of the fathers of the kids,” she says, “and I said, ‘They’re chasing me.’ And then I looked up and he wasn’t responding, but smirking. He was wearing a policeman’s uniform and that really freaked me out, you know, not being protected by a person who was supposed to do that.”
After high school Mitchell wanted to get as far away from California as possible, but her father was protective of her—her mother had died when she was 16—and insisted that she go no further than the University of California in San Diego. He supported her pursuit of music—she’d started on piano and viola in fourth grade—but he’d also encouraged her aptitude for math, and she initially declared as a math major. Nevertheless she spent most of her spare hours playing her flute in the university’s practice rooms, and in a few months she switched her major to music.
She was still devoted to classical music then, playing in youth orchestras on and off campus, and she admits with a sheepish grin that until she got to college she was listening almost exclusively to flutists like Jean-Pierre Rampal and James Galway. But Cheatham’s class—one of the school’s only jazz-related offerings for undergraduates—changed all that.
Mitchell in eighth grade; at the Chicago Jazz Festival, 2006; at the Velvet Lounge with David Boykin, 2007.
Michael Jackson (middle), Lauren Deutsch (bottom)
Mitchell had tried out for her high school’s jazz band, but the director didn’t want to make a spot for a flute—conventional student groups are full of saxes, trumpets, and trombones, and it takes special effort to accommodate a quieter front-line instrument. There was a student jazz band for undergrads at UCSD, but Mitchell had just started playing and didn’t feel ready to join, so the sidewalks were her only outlet.
Still, she grew increasingly focused on jazz. Cheatham introduced her to the recordings of Eric Dolphy, who played flute as well as saxophone and clarinet, and a visit to his class by jazz flutist James Newton blew her away. “I didn’t think there was anything else possible on the flute after hearing him,” she says.
She started playing with a local Afrobeat band, where she could improvise, but it didn’t scratch the right itch. By the end of her second year at UCSD she’d become terminally frustrated by its shortage of undergrad jazz courses, and in the fall of 1987 she persuaded her father to let her transfer to Oberlin, which has one of the oldest and most prestigious conservatories in the country. This time she was admitted as a physics major—she had a natural aptitude for the subject, if not much passion for it—and loaded up on music classes on the side. Hard-bop trumpeter Donald Byrd was overseeing the jazz program at Oberlin during her first year, but she wasn’t happy there either. “I didn’t like the conservatory culture,” she says. “The whole competitive thing wasn’t what I was about. For me, it was about doing my best, but not trying to compete with others. It was nasty—people wouldn’t speak with each other.”
After finishing her spring semester in ’88, Mitchell took a year off. She went back to Los Angeles and got a job as a welder—though she had no experience, she convinced the interviewer that she was a fast learner and that her math skills would help her out. “I just thought it would be a cool thing to do,” she says. “It was a truck-body company. I was the only girl in the warehouse and the only one that didn’t speak Spanish.” On weekends she often busked in San Diego, since she could make better money than in LA and the police didn’t hassle her. She started taking private lessons with Newton, who lived in Los Angeles, and frequently paid him in nickels, dimes, and quarters. In the fall of ’89 she returned to Oberlin, but she didn’t like it any better. She blames a discouraging professor. “He had no respect for my instrument,” says Mitchell. “He was always telling me that I was never going to do anything with jazz flute and that I needed to learn saxophone.” (The professor, of course, played saxophone.) She finished the school year, but she knew she wasn’t going to come back.
Instead she headed to Chicago, where she’d spent summers and holidays with her mother’s parents as a kid. While still at Oberlin she’d landed sponsorship for a research project on house music through the Ford and Mellon foundations. At first she lived with her grandfather, but he disapproved of the fieldwork the project required. “I got kicked out,” she says. “I had to go to these clubs late at night and he didn’t believe me. I said, ‘I’m doing my job,’ and he said, ‘I can’t take this, worrying about you on the streets of Chicago.’ He was 80 years old and he wasn’t going to budge.”
Mitchell moved in with a friend. When the project ended, she paid a visit to the offices of the black publishing house and bookstore Third World Press and begged for a job. She was hired as an intern and cobbled together a living playing on the street. She did most of her busking on the corner of Jackson and Wabash, sometimes with one of several percussionists she’d met, and the locals introduced her to other improvisers who stopped to listen.
Among them were reedist Douglas Ewart and flutist Maia, both members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an influential Chicago collective founded in the early 60s that emphasizes artistic and financial autonomy and has launched the likes of Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Within the year Mitchell and Maia were playing together in Samana, the first all-female group in the AACM’s history.
It was with Samana, a distinctive ensemble that mixed improvisation and vocalization and employed a range of nontraditional jazz instruments like sitar, cello, and autoharp—plus, in the AACM style, an array of exotic hand percussion—that Mitchell first made her mark as a performer and composer. But in 1992, just as the group was gaining traction, she left town to travel with a boyfriend, intending to end up in northern California. The couple settled in New Orleans instead, where Mitchell became pregnant, and after a year they returned to Chicago. “I couldn’t find work, it was too hot, and I couldn’t do the music I wanted to do,” she says. In the fall of ’93 she resumed her education, this time at Chicago State, but the birth of her daughter, Aaya, in ’94 put school on hold for another two years. Though she wouldn’t finish her BA in music till ’98, she did graphic design for Third World Press and rejoined Samana.
In 1995 Mitchell made some big changes: she left Aaya’s father and started an energizing (but strictly musical) relationship with drummer Hamid Drake. Samana was winding down, and she was looking for new outlets. She and Drake started Soundscapes, a trio with vocalist Glenda Zahra Baker, to contribute improvised music to a production of Othello by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. “It was the first place where I felt unlimited in music, and I realized the possibilities of what I could do,” she says. “Samana had a specific format.” Soundscapes continued to play sporadically at the Velvet Lounge once the play’s run ended, but for Mitchell the most lasting benefit of the project was the encouragement she got from Drake. “He would say things like, ‘I wonder what Nicole Mitchell’s band would sound like?’”
MITCHELL SAYS THE turning point for her was in 1997, when she met David Boykin, one of the most fiercely independent and hardest-blowing saxophonists in Chicago. “He was a huge inspiration for me,” she says. “He was the first person around my age that was trying to do something I was trying to do, and I started playing with him right away. I felt like I could really do my thing.” They’ve been a couple practically since they met.
“We got together and played, just the two of us,” Boykin says of their first rehearsal. “On very few occasions when you’re playing with someone you literally feel afraid, frightened. And the other thing you can feel is amazement, just standing around in awe. What I felt was kind of a combination of the two. What it meant for me was how much I was going to have to improve. I thought I was working hard before, but now I had to work that much harder. I asked her to sit in with me right after that. I knew right off the bat that we were going to be working together.”
When she brought in some tunes from the dozens she’d written—many of which had never been played—he said, “Why don’t you start your own group?” She embraced the challenge, assembling the first version of her Black Earth Ensemble late that year. Boykin was an original member of the group, then a sextet, but Mitchell says she had to kick him out for a while: “He wouldn’t listen to me. We might have a section were we’d do a collective improvisation, and he would just stand there—it wasn’t until we all finished that he would start soloing. One time he made some suggestions, and I said, ‘This ain’t your group,’ and everyone laughed and there were no more problems. It’s kind of a woman thing, that if you’re confident in what you’re doing you’re OK, but you have to get to that level of being sure of what you want. It took about a year for me to feel comfortable with the group, but it was empowering to finally play and share this huge stack of compositions that I had, and that after ten years of contributing to and supporting other musicians that it was OK, that I didn’t feel any guilt about being a leader. It was out of a desire for the music, not out of any desire to be a bandleader.”
Since then the Black Earth Ensemble has been Mitchell’s primary group, but she’s started a number of other projects—including the Black Earth Strings, a drummerless chamber ensemble with its own repertoire—and continues to play in many more. (Both the smaller Black Earth groups appear at the Velvet Lounge this weekend, and the Black Earth Strings are looking for a label for their first recording.) Between 2001 and 2004 the Black Earth Ensemble made three increasingly ambitious and focused albums, and Mitchell put them out herself on Dreamtime, an imprint she started with Boykin, without even trying to attract the attention of an outside label. “I just decided to do it myself,” she says. “I really enjoyed taking those small steps and learning the process.”
In her dazzling compositions she draws on variants of jazz from across much of the genre’s history, not to mention reggae, African grooves, and Latin rhythms, but the music that results is more like an alloy than a patchwork—there are no seams showing. It’s avant-garde but swings ferociously, and though the tunes are complex and tightly arranged, they leave plenty of space for improvisation. The first thing you’re likely to notice, though, is how upbeat and ebullient Mitchell’s music is.
“I haven’t ever played any music like the stuff she writes,” says guitarist Jeff Parker. Best known as a member of Tortoise, he’s also one of the city’s most accomplished soloists and has been a steady collaborator of Mitchell’s for the past seven years. “You can feel the influence of her classical training because her music is really intricate and it’s not as obviously coming from jazz.”
Parker is part of a pool of about 30 musicians Mitchell draws from for the Black Earth groups, many of whom—notably violinist Savoir Faire, trombonist Tony Herrera, and cellist Tomeka Reid—have developed significantly under her tutelage. And her teaching isn’t confined to her bands: Since last fall she’s been a part-time instructor at Wheaton College and UIC, and over the past six years she’s held similar posts at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago State, and Northern Illinois University, where she earned her master’s in 2000. For the past two years she’s been copresident of the AACM—the first woman to hold the position—and in 2006 she founded the AACM Creative Youth Ensemble. She also does outreach work in three public elementary schools through a program organized by Ravinia.
With all this on her plate, it’s no wonder Mitchell said yes last year when New York trumpeter Dave Douglas asked to release a recording by Indigo Trio—a powerful but rarely convened group with Hamid Drake and bassist Harrison Bankhead—on his Greenleaf label. “I first heard Niki live at a festival in France a few years ago,” says Douglas. “It was just so unusual and astounding to hear a band that was so fluent in so many different kinds of languages. And her technique is so flawless and her tone is so warm and rich that it just kind of bowled me over. I was initially attracted by the music, and something I didn’t know about her and I’ve been really impressed by is how much work she does in the community—and you can’t overlook that as an influence, or maybe something that just goes parallel to the way she thinks musically.”
With Muhal Richard Abrams at an AACM anniversary concert, 2005; leading the Great Black Music Ensemble at Jazz Fest, 2005.
Lauren Deutsch; James F. Quinn
Douglas isn’t the only label head who’s been impressed. Late last year Thrill Jockey released the debut album by Frequency, a collective with Bankhead, reedist Edward Wilkerson, and drummer Avreeayl Ra. More discs will follow this fall: Delmark is issuing a new studio CD and a live DVD (recorded at the Velvet Lounge) by the Black Earth Ensemble, and the New England imprint Firehouse 12—which in April put out a nine-disc box set by the Anthony Braxton 12+1tet that also features Mitchell—is releasing a CD of her Xenogenesis Suite. Dreamtime is still active too, and will issue Mitchell’s first solo CD, an outdoor recording called Duo With Deer Isle, within the next few months.
SINCE HER 2003 theater piece VisionQuest: Hope, Future and Destiny, Mitchell has been exploring programmatic compositions—that is, pieces with some sort of organizing principle located outside the music itself—and the suite dedicated to Alice Coltrane that she’ll present in Millennium Park this week is perhaps her most ambitious yet. But it was Xenogenesis Suite that was the biggest challenge for her to write: though Mitchell admires Butler’s fiction, it’s far darker than any subject matter she’d tackled before—and the music is likewise darker, giving some indication of her range. Brooding and sometimes harrowing, it combines lyrics and nonverbal vocals with jagged, dissonant instrumental arrangements to convey the story of a black woman abducted by aliens after humanity nearly kills itself off in a nuclear war—her captors need to interbreed with other species to remain genetically viable, and she’s asked to recruit other humans to help. “I feel that Africans being transported into slavery experienced that in a real brutal way, and then they had to find some kind of humanity even in their captors,” says Mitchell. “To write music based off of that was hard.”
“What’s most important about Nicole is that she thinks in very broad outlines,” says trombonist and Columbia University professor George Lewis, whose highly anticipated history of the AACM will be published this fall. “She thinks in a very expansive way. She has the broadest conception of herself as an artist and as a human being, and she’s not limited in terms of style, genre, or creative community. You often find that people are fearful of moving outside of the orbit that first nurtured them, and I think Nicole has a nomadic personality, which fits in well in a kind of postmodern context. People aren’t interested in the old, rigid alignments that you get stuck in as a musician. She has a willingness to engage just about anything.”
When Mitchell explains why she was moved to celebrate Alice Coltrane, she could almost be talking about herself. “I think of her as a real humanist—she could see the connections between different faiths that people have. She tried to find the common denominator of all music. I just want to deal with different aspects of the concept of a person going through a journey seeking their own actualization. That’s my intuitive narrative to go through in writing the music—from confusion to revelation.
Black Unstoppable, Black Earth Ensemble
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Black Unstoppable Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble | Delmark Records (2007) By Troy Collin...Black Unstoppable
Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble | Delmark Records (2007)
By Troy Collins
December 7, 2007
Co-President of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and voted Down Beat Magazine's # 1 Rising Star Flutist for the past two years, Nicole Mitchell is the most significant jazz flutist of her generation.
A former student of flutist James Newton, Mitchell is a peerless improviser, having fully absorbed the extended vocal techniques pioneered by Rahsaan Roland Kirk and the abstruse verticality of Eric Dolphy. Bolstering emotionally direct lyricism with edgy phrasing and expressive vocalisms without abandoning structure or form, she consistently maintains thematic focus, even in uncharted territory.
Reminiscent of the halcyon days of the Loft Era, Mitchell's writing balances inside and outside aesthetics gracefully, vacillating between extremes of freedom and structure with ease. Skillfully weaving circuitous lines of bracing angularity with accessible, buoyant harmonies that recall the glory days of hard bop, Mitchell's tunes both challenge and entertain.
Mitchell's flagship group, the Black Earth Ensemble, epitomizes the AACM's credo—Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future.” Trafficking in advanced post-bop structures, free-form improvisation, stirring blues, passionate soul, simmering funk and even Afro-Beat, the Black Earth Ensemble offers a kaleidoscopic array of the finest African-American musical traditions.
Their fourth album, but first for Delmark, Black Unstoppable follows Vision Quest (2001), Afrika Rising (2002), and Hope, Future and Destiny (2004), all on Dreamtime Records. Available as a studio recorded CD and a live performance DVD, both editions of Black Unstoppable catch the band up close and personal, in brilliant sonic detail.
The Black Earth Ensemble features a stellar line-up of some of Chicago's finest improvisers. Ubiquitous guitarist Jeff Parker (Tortoise, New Horizons) displays boundless creativity, ranging from supple, linear introspection to acerbic, EFX-laden abstraction. Stalwart bassist Josh Abrams serves alongside cellist Tomeka Reid, a rising presence on the Windy City's vibrant jazz scene.
Lesser known, but no less accomplished, saxophonist David Boykin and trumpeter David Young form a dynamic front line with Mitchell. Boykin's turbulent tenor tantrums and Young's highly vocalized mute work add a broad sense of stylistic diversity to the group. Rounding out the ensemble are drummer Marcus Evans, playing with subtle restraint throughout; and pianist Justin Dillard, who guests on three tunes.
Singer Ugochi Nwaogwugwu contributes soulful vocals, engaging in a robust blues duet with David Young on “Love Has No Boundaries,” and soaring over the infectious Afro-Beat groove of “Life Wants You to Love.” With rousing soul power, she leads “Thanking the Universe,” spurring the instrumentalists onward and upward.
An enthralling blend of styles and genres unified by an organic sensibility, Black Unstoppable is a definitive statement from the new face of the AACM, and a tribute to the organization's longevity.
Visit Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble on the web.
Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble at All About Jazz.
Track listing: Cause and Effect; Black Unstoppable; February; Love Has No Boundaries; Sun Cycles; The Creator Has Other Plans for Me; Life Wants You to Love; Navigator; Thanking the Universe.
Personnel: Nicole Mitchell: flute, alto flute, piccolo; David Boykin: tenor saxophone, percussion; David Young: trumpet, flugelhorn, vocal (4); Jeff Parker: guitar; Justin Dillard: piano (4, 5, 8); Tomeka Reid: cello, shakere; Josh Abrams: bass; Marcus Evans: drums; Ugochi Nwaogwugwu: vocals (4, 7, 9).
Style: Modern Jazz/Free Improvisation | Published: December 07, 2007
2006 CHICAGOANS OF THE YEAR: JAZZ
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Just a few years ago, Nicole Mitchell was a promising Chicago flutist generating palpable buzz among...Just a few years ago, Nicole Mitchell was a promising Chicago flutist generating palpable buzz among local music connoisseurs.
Today, she's an internationally known artist who brings the sound of Chicago to audiences around the world, and not only through her virtuosity on flute.
As a composer, bandleader and jazz conceptualizer, she emerged in 2006 as a center of gravity for music in Chicago and beyond. Fellow musicians, major promoters and leading arts organizations drew energy and inspiration from her work and her vision.
In the past 12 months alone, Mitchell earned ovations from Paris to Rome to Vancouver; led a contingent of innovative musicians during a "Made in Chicago" jazz festival in Poland; and won a coveted commission from Chamber Music America to compose a large-scale work, to be premiered next year in New York.
That she also directed her Black Earth Ensemble to wide acclaim, toiled as co-president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and created the AACM Creative Youth Ensemble suggests that she's an artist on a mission.
"I'm getting to stretch out," says Mitchell, with characteristic understatement.
"It just seems a natural progression, with more and more people being exposed to my work."
Certainly an ever-growing audience is seeking her out, realizing that Mitchell has blossomed from ascendant flutist to multifaceted artist.
Ironically, her greatest work of 2006 may be least known to Chicagoans, because she composed an epic, two-hour-plus suite that received its world premiere last month in Poznan, Poland, in a performance with such noted colleagues as vocalist Dee Alexander, bassist Tatsu Aoki and saxophonist David Boykin. The "Harambee Project" drew critical and popular acclaim in Poland, where a standing-room-only crowd embraced the Chicagoans.
"Everyone loved Nicole," says Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago and co-organizer of the Chicago-to-Poznan expedition (which also featured Deutsch's celebrated photos of the Chicago jazz scene).
"The whole city was pretty much bubbling over with excitement when we got there," adds Mitchell. "Every concert was SRO -- they really didn't want us to stop."
The reason, says Mitchell, has less to do with herself and more to do with sound and spirit of jazz, Chicago style.
"Whenever I go to Poland or Paris or wherever, people ask me, `Why does all this great music come out of Chicago?'" says Mitchell.
"I think it's because of the community of musicians and supporters who live in Chicago."
None more promising than Mitchell.
Critic's Choice: Indigo Trio
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INDIGO TRIO This group's new Live in Montreal, recorded in 2005, captures the first time its members...INDIGO TRIO This group's new Live in Montreal, recorded in 2005, captures the first time its members--flutist Nicole Mitchell, bassist Harrison Bankhead, and drummer Hamid Drake--performed as a trio. That's astonishing, not just because they've collaborated so often in other groupings over the decades, but because on the CD they sound like they've spent years absorbing the material (four collective improvisations and two Mitchell originals), hovering together in that sweet spot between detailed lyricism and airy spontaneity. Mitchell is one of Chicago's most talented improvisers and well on her way to becoming jazz's greatest living flute player--great enough to redeem the notion of jazz flute for people who'd otherwise think of Will Ferrell. Here she threads skeins of melody through long-form harmonic structures and terse motific variations, while the rhythm section nonchalantly follows her complex lines as if they'd memorized the schematics beforehand, tugging and tightening where needed. Though Mitchell largely runs the show, there's plenty of space for Bankhead and Drake, whose extended solos effortlessly maintain the music's snap and swing. Live in Montreal is the third album in the online-only Paperback Series on Dave Douglas's label Greenleaf.
Black Earth Ensemble
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Black Earth Ensemble: Young Chicagoan Mitchell has been picking up awards and prize n the USA Midwe...Black Earth Ensemble: Young Chicagoan Mitchell has been picking up awards and prize n the USA Midwest recently and also won a Downbeat Rising Star gong last year. On this, her latest album, she contributes the compositions and arrangements as well as her own playing. Her performing roots are Chicago’s AACM, but she has chosen to interpret that legacy in a distinctly personal way, which I would imagine is perfectly alright with the AACM considering its long-term encouragement of individualists. She draws on stylistic links with South African jazz and more US based rhythms and gets her ensemble to deliver an impressive array of colors and moods. She is also happy to let her sidemen shine in solo spots (trumpeter Wilkes is especially notable) while her own playing shows the thought processes of a natural orchestrator and bandleader; everything fits, nothing goes on too long. Mitchell describes this CD as a multi-arts community play with a coherent narrative. This is a colorful, vibrant music with pleasing echoes of the methods of other large improvisatory bands led by Mingus, Gil Evans and Roland Kirk. By evidence of the CD booklet, its great to see live as well. Something for the Barbican, perhaps?
Black Earth Ensemble: Afrika Rising
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Nicole’s second recoding is not to be missed. It is a true discovery, and I urge everyone intereste...Nicole’s second recoding is not to be missed. It is a true discovery, and I urge everyone interested in this music to seek it out. Hearing it reminded me of the first time I heard the Abdullah Ibrahim recordings, or of Randy Weston’s incredible work with Melba Liston’s arrangements. But since Mitchell plays the flute, composes and arranges, the more appropriate comparison might be the early Blue Note work of James Newton. Indeed, this is for me the most exciting debut on the flute since Newton came to light over twenty years ago. She thanks both Ed Wilkerson and Ernest Dawkins in her comments, and so we can hear her Chicago roots in the Afrocentric work of the AACM, and there is more than a hint of Chicago’s Sun Ra in the way she uses group vocals (on the brief Goldmind) and in the cosmic reach of her imagination. Let’s face it, those are some big names to throw around. But on the evidence of this one recording, Mitchell is already in that league. I know I will be searching out her first recording, Vision Quest (also on Dreamtime).
But a few words on the music; the Black Earth Ensemble varies from a 6tet to a 12tet, but is always keeps the feel of a little big band, reminiscent of Wilkerson’s 8 Bold Souls. Mitchell writes well for the ensemble, using lost of fresh colors in the arrangements while keeping space for some serious soloing. Her work on flute is wonderful, stretching the admittedly limited instrument with Rahsaan vocalizations, but she is able to play is straight and pretty too. Yet as well as she plays, this music is about the ensemble. And al the various musicians seem to e deeply part of the group spirit. The first 22 minutes of the recording are devoted to the Afrika Risig Trilogy, an extended piece for 12 players that expands and uses a Weston-like high life ounce to support some strong solos from David Boykin on tenor sax and Tony Herrera on trombone and eventually shells. While a lot of hour long recordings might fade after an opening twenty minutes like that, Afrika Rising just keeps stretching and growing in new dimensions, mixing in gospel with an allusion to “Wade in the Water” and eventually straight out swinging at times. Mitchell is an artist to watch for, and Afrika Rising is a recording you need to discover.
On Location: Indigo Trio
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The Indigo Trio is an AACM unit, led by flutist Nicole Mitchell, with Hamid Drake and bassist Harrri...The Indigo Trio is an AACM unit, led by flutist Nicole Mitchell, with Hamid Drake and bassist Harrrison Bankhead. Nicole’s playing and in-synch vocalizing were very much in the Eric Dolphy spirit-line. It was easy to imagine her communing with the birds, but the depth of her tone fitted wonderfully with Drake’s explosive percussion, resulting in a transcendental journey.
Guelph Jazz Festival: Black Earth Ensemble
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Swinging, blutes-infested spirits infiltrated the music of Nicole Mitchell and her Black Earth Ensem...Swinging, blutes-infested spirits infiltrated the music of Nicole Mitchell and her Black Earth Ensemble, with David Boykin, Chad Taylor, Josh Abrams and Jeff Parker. She adeptly switched to bein a free spirit with no controlling boundaries as she dominated with her aggressive flute playing and coquettish style. Mitchell has wonderful stage presence and mstery over her insrument, a fine improvising technique, and an alluring personality.
Indigo Trio Review by Derek Taylor
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A gathering of friends performing for the first time together as a trio, the Indigo Trio still repre...A gathering of friends performing for the first time together as a trio, the Indigo Trio still represents a web of longstanding musical relationships. Bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Hamid Drake have been collaborators since they were kids, their most recent recorded work together as the rhythm team for Chicago patriarch Fred Anderson. Flautist Nicole Mitchell’s broken musical bread with both men in her own Black Earth Ensemble and the celebrated recent Chicago ensemble Frequency. Taped live in Montreal and released as part of Greenleaf Music’s Paperback Series of concert recordings, the music comes in frugal cardboard packaging but carries an implicit guarantee in terms of aural satisfaction.
One of the most prevalent aspects of the trio is a shared omnivorous appetite when it comes to stylistic ingredients. Bankhead’s nimble opening arco work on “Welcoming” is classical in cast, vague Arabic sonorities bleeding through in his warmly bowed lines. Mitchell’s incantatory entrance and modulating commentary recalls McCoy Tyner’s African-informed albums for Milestone in the early Seventies. Drake keeps things moving with a steady sluicing of cymbal and snare accents. “Thankfulness” arises directly out of its predecessor, Bankhead laying down a simple strummed vamp and Mitchell lithely soaring against Drake’s bustling polyrhythms. The flautist’s sprawling and sectional “Afrika Rising” weaves through a cycle of permutations, drums and bass shaping a propulsive groove above which flute spirals and dives in dizzying aerial acrobatics. Mitchell brings to mind the Bobbi Humphrey in her blend of agility and melodic acuity while Bankhead and Drake cooperate on a constantly shifting canvas for her aerated sketches. One passage finds the drummer locking on a Rhumba groove and bassist instantly following suit with a sliding ostinato to wonderfully danceable effect.
All three players vocalize in places, most prominently on the contagious reggae dub closer “Stand Strong.” It’s an expected tactic from Hamid whose Sufi chants are a reliable part of his performances, but welcome from the others as well whose untrained voices add to the set’s sense of earthy sincerity. “Forest Light” expounds on Shinto influences as Mitchell channels shakuhachi sounds through wooden flute and Bankhead approximates the brittle tones of koto on bass to the palmed patter of Drake’s frame drum. The three give an extended shout out to hometown stomping grounds on “Velvet Lounge Bounce”, Mitchell’s mercurial flute once again dancing in and out of Drake’s muscular but exacting metrics as Bankhead sustains a blurred pizzicato anchor. This is easily the best flute, bass and drums jazz trio to come along since Andrew Cyrille’s Good to Go with James Newton and Lisle Atkinson released a decade ago. Don’t let the featherweight assumptions often attached to the frontline instrument fool you, Mitchell and her colleagues serve notice of their ability to shake both hips and rafters.
~ Derek Taylor
Mitchell's Music Casts Spell at Jazz Series: Alice Coltrane Tribute Embraces Transcendence by Howard Reich
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It had to be the most mystical performance yet in Millennium Park's "Made in Chicago" jazz series. ...It had to be the most mystical performance yet in Millennium Park's "Made in Chicago" jazz series.
Even if flutist Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Orchestra hadn't been paying homage to the late Alice Coltrane on Thursday, the haunting translucence of this ensemble's work would have cast a certain spell.
But because Mitchell had composed a suite of pieces designed to evoke the spiritual message of Coltrane's art, Mitchell's new score — titled "Where Many Rivers Meet the Sea" — proved all the more beguiling.
In an evening overflowing with revelatory moments, surely the most striking occurred when vocalist Zahra Baker unfurled a serenely poetic tribute to Coltrane. Singing slowly and magisterially, her text referencing Coltrane's quest for transcendence, Baker built climaxes of irresistible sway. All the while, the horns and percussion of the Black Earth Orchestra rose in intensity as a chorus might in church, until the sound of vocalist and instrumentalists merged into a great exultation.
Practically every phrase Baker intoned evoked the life and times of Coltrane (who was the widow of the jazz icon John Coltrane).
"She's the voice of the ancient chanting," Baker cried out, "for the awakening of separated souls." With these words, Baker articulated the purpose of Mitchell's suite: to express divine impulses in a jazz setting.
Yet this was no portentous, sacred screed. Merging crisply composed passages with sequences of free improvisation, Mitchell's score drew on an array of jazz and blues idioms, many invented by members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). But this music also surged beyond familiar AACM syntax.
Mitchell's deft writing for three flutes in the "Desire" movement of her suite, for instance, produced a sensuousness of sound rarely encountered in either jazz or classical contexts. Guest keyboardist Myra Melford's Eastern-tinged work on harmonium in the "Focus" movement — with the band vamping aggressively alongside her — attested to the stylistic range of the evening's music.
And the spiky dissonance and ferocious energy the musicians produced in the opening movement, "The Seeker," pointed to the fearlessness of Mitchell's work. Anyone who's willing to open an evening before an audience of an estimated 4,000 listeners — many uninitiated in the more arcane aspects of jazz improvisation — with this kind of fire does not go gently into the night.
Not even Mitchell, though, could have pulled off such a feat alone. She needed Melford's hyper-virtuosic pianism, Matana Roberts' searing alto saxophone solos, Maia's shimmering harp cadenzas, David Boykin's tenor saxophone eruptions, David Young's piercing trumpet cries and much more to give full voice to her paean to Coltrane.
Program of Diverse and Original Music Composed by Nicole Mitchell
Examples of programs can be found on the following records:
Black Unstoppable (Black Earth Ensemble)
Hope, Future and Destiny (Black Earth Ensemble)
Afrika Rising (Black Earth Ensemble)
Duo with Deer Isle (Solo Flute)
Indigo Trio Live in Montreal (Indigo Trio)
Frequency (Frequency Quartet)
There are no upcoming dates at this time.