April 2008

Nicole Mitchell: Earth Tones

Aside from the late Herbie Mann, Bobbi Humphrey and Hubert Laws, few musicians play the flute exclusively. Most keep it as part of an arsenal where it comes behind a reed or two. Add to that the instrument’s reputation of sounding overly sweet in the wrong hands, and the flute is saddled with an undeserved stereotype.

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Nicole Mitchell, on flute, with her Black Earth Ensemble

Nicole Mitchell doesn’t blow like that. “I really don’t like the whole flowery approach,” the Chicago flutist says of her instrument. “That’s not really my thing.” This was apparent last year on Exploding Star Orchestra’s We Are All From Somewhere Else (Thrill Jockey). In the opening minutes, trombone, vibes and guitar create a backdrop that helps Mitchell come across in an especially gritty manner. Her playing on the lower alto flute adds to her already rootsy sound.

“It’s got more meat on it. I like that, even though I’m a vegetarian,” she says with a laugh.

Along with appearances in the Orchestra, Mitchell’s numerous musical projects include serving as co-president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and leading several thought-provoking ensembles. Most recently, her Black Earth Ensemble’s Black Unstoppable was released by Delmark simultaneously as a studio CD and a DVD of live performances. As of this writing, the independent Firehouse 12 imprint is scheduled to release yet another work, The Xenogenesis Suite, in March.

Black Unstoppable draws together influences ranging from free-jazz blowing to gutsy soul vocals courtesy of singer Ugochi Nwaogwugwu. But it follows music written for choreography and drama (2004’s Hope Future Destiny) and, with the suite, a commission focused on the concept of fear that was inspired by science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler. Despite the vast shifts between works, Mitchell sees it all as a continuing celebration of Great Black Music. “I’m a person who embraces all the music that I’ve absorbed and that I’ve loved over my lifetime,” she says.

The Ensemble gets plenty of kick from Mitchell’s writing, but the unique players and instrumentation add to it. Trumpeter David Young and the man Mitchell calls her soulmate, tenor saxophonist David Boykin, join the flutist on the frontline. Guitarist Jeff Parker (whose lengthy résumé includes post-rockers Tortoise) and cellist Tomeka Reid add to both the sonic texture and the rhythmic foundation of bassist Josh Abrams and drummer Marcus Evans.

The freewheeling piece that provides the album’s title comes from what Mitchell calls one of her inside jokes. “I don’t think a black audience would think of free-jazz as black music,” she says. “I don’t think it would be embraced. But at the same time, there were all these great people like Sun Ra, Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. They definitely played a creative role in free music, so it has its place within that.”

In the past few years, Mitchell has worked with two veteran composers with strong ties to free music: Bill Dixon, a prolific trumpeter and educator who once worked with Archie Shepp; and piano icon Cecil Taylor, who performed and recorded with Exploding Star Orchestra last year at the request of ESO director/cornetist Rob Mazurek. (Thrill Jockey released Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra in February.) Mitchell calls Dixon “a master, not just for his playing, but for his ability to explain and to put into words what his perspective is, musically, and what he wants out of his work. I’m really glad Rob had the insight not only to invite him to play but to step back and let Bill run things a little bit.”

A few years ago, Mitchell received an e-mail out of the blue from Anthony Braxton asking if she would join his 12 + 1tet ensemble. Playing the AACM figurehead’s music fell in place with Mitchell’s ability to channel everything she had learned. “He’ll demand every aspect of your musical experience—to have all of that in top form when you’re playing with him,” she says of Braxton. “He’s a very giving and brilliant person.”

Mitchell says she’s too focused on things like composing to dwell much on gender issues, such as being the first woman in 55 years to lead a session for Delmark. Yet when asked, she feels she brings a female perspective to her work with AACM, which has been a historically male institution and one full of diverse musical concepts and opinions. “I think that, as a woman, it’s easy for me to say, ‘Hey, we do have something in common, here: it’s love for the organization.’ The beautiful thing is to have that diversity and yet to unify on our direction as an organization so that we can manifest these things.” To that end, Mitchell facilitated a partnership with Festival sons d’Hiver in Paris, which has brought AACM artists to the jazz event for the last three years.

Though a band like Black Earth Ensemble might sound new to some ears, Mitchell sees a clear connection between her work and the music that preceded and inspired it. “When you have music that deals with all the moods that traditional songs deal with, [the important result is] really about those feelings. It’s not, ‘Oh, I know this song,’” she says. “And that’s what I do: I explore human experience through creative music, and I am also very inspired by nature, which is why I named the band Black Earth.”

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