Downbeat Critic's Poll: A Rising Star Jazz Flutist (2003)
Nicole Mitchell leads the AACM-oriented Black Earth Ensemble through 11 ambitious original compositions on Afrika Rising (Dreamtime 004; 59:27; ***1/2). Her titular "Trilogy," 21 minutes long, kicks off with plucked strings evoking an mbira, and percussion and her flute figures, piping and trilling to introduce an orchestra of reeeds, brass, shells cello, violin, bass, piano and drums. Deft at vocal growls, split tones and overblowing as well as precise articulation, Mitchell is equal to any of her impassioned players and well in command of loose, polyrhythmic forces. Her pieces are varied-moody, narrative and atmospheric.
Black Earth Ensemble
Chicago has, almost from the beginnings of Jazz, been the home of two musical worlds. Ever since Bud Freeman and Art Hodes went roaming southwards to be blown away by the likes of King Oliver and that young cat he had on cornet, the cross pollination of uptown With music with the South Side has been a key reason why Chicago has so richly stayed at the center of what is happening in Jazz. These two recordings are evidence that these two musical worlds still thrive, and the cross pollination we hope continues.
Nicole Mitchell's second recording is not to be missed (1) (Afrika Rising) 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 from South Afrika, 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 to 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 20 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 about the music: the Black Earth Ensemble varies from a 6tet to a 12tet, but it 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 it straight and pretty too. Yet as well as she plays, this music is about the ensemble. And all the various musicians seem to be deeply part of the group spirit. The first 22 minutes of the recording are devoted to the Afrika Rising Trilogy, an extended piece for 12 players that expands and uses a Weston-like high life to support some strong solos from David Boykins on tenor sax and Tony Herrera on trombones 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.
In fact, Afrika Rising is more interesting, exciting and approachable than the much more heralded work of the other side of Chicago Jazz, as Tigersmilk is likely to demonstrate.
Nicole Mitchell, a "Widely Praised Soloist" (Chicago Tribune), is one of few African American women to take the path as a creative instrumentalist, composer and bandleader. Her life is dedicated to sharing the spiritual power of music in an effort to create visionary worlds and to bring healing.
An exciting younger member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Mitchell, explores new sounds and creative techniques as a flutist and as a composer. Ms. Mitchell placed 2nd in Downbeat magazine's 2003 Critic's Poll as a Rising Star Flutist and she has performed with world renown musicians including George Lewis, James Newton, Leroy Jenkins, Ari Brown, Jeff Parker, Michael Zerang and Malachi Favors. Mitchell also works in ongoing projects with Hamid Drake, David Boykin, Harrison Bankhead, Ed Wilkerson Jr. and Arveeayl Ra.
In the past few years, Mitchell has performed in the European cities of: Milan, Bologna and Rome, Paris, Munich, Yuroslavl and Moscow. Mitchell's entered the Chicago creative music scene as a co-founder of the AACM's first all-women ensemble, Samana. For over the past decade, she has participated at various festivals and art venues throughout the United States. Chicago performances include the Chicago Jazz Festival, the African Festival of the Arts, the Chicago Symphony Center, the Chicago Cultural Center, the HotHouse and the Velvet Lounge.
Nicole Mitchell is the founder and leader of Black Earth Ensemble (BE), a multi-genre celebration of the African American cultural legacy. BE performs original compositions by Mitchell that embrace the ancient past and paint visions of a positive future; her music interweaves the feelings of blues, bebop, swing, eastern modes, classical melodies and African rhythms. Mitchell's latest CD with BE, Afrika Rising, was one of the Chicago SunTimes top ten jazz albums for 2002, and also made top ten in the CMJ charts. Mitchell is looking forward to taking her group Black Earth Ensemble, to Verona, Italy in October 2003.Black Earth Ensemble performed on WTTW's (PBS) Centerstage, June 2003, and in 2002, Nicole Mitchell and her story as a musician and educator were featured on WTTW's ARTBEAT Chicago.
Ms. Mitchell also performs on flute with the David Boykin Expanse, co-leads the Ed Wilkerson-Niki Mitchell Quartet and co-leads DreamSeekers, a collective that brings African American history to life for children. She plays classical and jazz flute for the New Black Repertory Ensemble of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College.
As a composer Nicole Mitchell recently won the Illinois Arts Council (IAC) grant for music composition (2002). In November 2003, Mitchell will unveil a multi-genre project featuring original composition, video, dance and drama, sponsored by the Jazz Institute of Chicago.
As a music educator, Mitchell teaches flute at Chicago State University, and is an adjunct professor of music at Northeastern Illinois University. Mitchell also enjoys working with youth as a resident artist in the Chicago public schools, representing Ravinia's Arts program.