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Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble: Xenogenesis Suite

A few months after releasing the excellent Black Unstoppable, flutist Nicole Mitchell heads away from the previous album’s blend of free-blowing grooves and soul vocals toward something a little more sinister. Xenogenesis Suite is subtitled “A tribute to Octavia Butler,” the science fiction author whose novel Dawn inspired Butler to compose a 12-part piece that deals with the way individuals combat fear and how they need to adapt in the face of inhuman circumstances. It may sound crazy on paper, but it’s one of the few post-9/11 concept albums that succeed in balancing a heavy concept with solid music.

The Ensemble members work largely as a unit to create the edgy soundscape, although tenor saxophonist David Boykin gets to blow a gruff solo on “Adrenalin” and Mitchell steps out briefly on “Transition C.” Largely, they play tense riffs or drones, drum and percussion clatter and explosive shifts in dynamics. On top of the music, vocalist Mankwe Ndosi acts as an additional instrument, wailing, whispering, gasping and occasionally singing lyrics. Her performance falls somewhere to the left of Abbey Lincoln’s work with Max Roach and to the right of Patty Waters, and on first examination it’s an annoying distraction. On repeated listens, Ndosi’s role makes sense in the overall suite and serves as a reminder that that this is supposed to be challenging music.

Originally Published