Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble: Black Unstoppable

The opening moments of “Cause and Effect,” the first track, set the tone: A tough, almost steely unison statement from flutist Mitchell, saxist David Boykin, trumpeter David Young, guitarist Jeff Parker and the tightly wound Black Earth Ensemble rhythm section brightens into an angular, almost playful boppish line. This is a declaration of purpose: There’s joy and dance here, but the underlying message is one of resolute strength and empowerment. Like Max Roach’s, Nicole Mitchell’s music is infused with a spirit of liberation that transcends ideology but must be received to truly immerse oneself in the message of the music.

Few flutists can summon the variety of tones, textures, emotional realms and degrees of light from the instrument that Mitchell can: alternately eider-down tender, knifelike, declamatory and spiritually seeking, her sound-and the fearless way in which she prods her melodic ideas into new, unexpected directions-sometimes seems to invoke virtually the entire range of human possibilities over the course of a solo. Young’s trumpet can sometimes seem uncompromisingly brash, but there’s an underlying tenderness beneath even his harshest statements. Boykin’s tenor sax dances with leonine grace, whether he’s hewing closely to a melody or shattering it into kaleidoscopic shards and then reassembling it in new forms. Again, the politics of the music is clear: new beauty may be achieved through tearing down the old, but the reassembly process takes discipline, vision and commitment.

This is an “ensemble” in the truest sense: duties, responsibilities and even inspiration are shared, passed back and forth, and collectively nurtured. Guitarist Jeff Parker’s leads, ranging from mellow-toned murmurs to Sharrock-esque barbed-wire fusillades, seem to both propel and respond to Marcus Evans’ drum work and bassist Josh Abrams’ steadfast yet supple grounding. Cellist Tomeka Reid lays down extended arco lines, often imbued with a mournful stateliness, even a solemnity, that provide both a musical and emotional anchor for the others (too bad, though, that her nimble-fingered solo chops weren’t showcased more extensively). Vocalist Ugochi Nwaogwugwu is in command of an impressive array of timbral textures, as well as a tightly controlled intonation capable of handling the toughest challenges Mitchell’s melodies can throw at her. The entire performance segues effortlessly between group and individual statements; what might be juxtaposed or at odds in life can be resolved in music and ritual. This is, of course, a profoundly Africanist notion, and it provides yet another important insight into the deeper meaning of what Mitchell and the Black Earth Ensemble are about.

Originally Published