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Essential Nicole Mitchell

Five great recordings featuring the versatile, visionary flutist-composer

Afrika Rising (Dreamtime, 2002)

Mitchell’s second release as a leader demonstrates how fully formed her vision was early on. The music is deeply informed by African rhythm and counterpoint as well as by big-band jazz of both the classic and eccentric (à la Sun Ra) varieties. Mitchell uses many voices masterfully, none more so than her own: It’s clear that she can already play anything on the flute.

Frequency (Thrill Jockey, 2006)

The many woodwinds of frontline partner and de facto leader Edward Wilkerson might have overwhelmed a lesser musician, but Mitchell’s is the most penetrating, distinctive sound on this quartet disc. From her mesmerizing, propulsive solo on “Take Refuge” to her hesitant staccato on “Fertility Dance,” this is some of the flutist’s best playing on record. She even manages to find ingenuity in the rustling of a plastic bag.

Black Unstoppable (Delmark, 2008)

A sprawling, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink affair, Black Unstoppable is probably Mitchell’s finest work to date as a composer and bandleader. Indeed, it’s one of the best examples of Chicago’s jazz heritage to be found, with blues and soul on equal footing alongside avant-garde and classical ideas. “Life Wants You to Love” even throws in a spectacular Afrobeat pastiche. The AACM’s “Great Black Music” concept has rarely been demonstrated better.

Stars Have Shapes (Delmark, 2010)

Mitchell is but one voice in Rob Mazurek’s 14-piece ensemble. She blends into the overall coloration of the music here, probably more so than on any of her other recordings. Still, she never gets lost in it, cutting through the thrusting beats of “ChromoRocker.” Her beautiful rolling purr also rises to the surface of the watery alien soundscape “Three Blocks of Light,” playing off Jason Adasiewicz’s vibraphone like reflecting light.

Engraved in the Wind (RogueArt, 2013)

To hear Mitchell’s flute unaccompanied for the first time is arresting. As the disc progresses, familiar hallmarks of her style come through: trills, ascending slurs and explorations of the instrument’s mid-low and low registers. The only adornment is in Mitchell’s occasional multitracked playing. Though there are compositions (by Mitchell as well as some of her colleagues), the spirit of free improvisation reigns.

Originally Published