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Before & After With Nicole Mitchell

Acclaimed flutist, composer and longstanding member of AACM doodles her way through listening session

Nicole Mitchell (photo by Kristi Sutton Elias)
Nicole Mitchell (photo: Kristi Sutton Elias)

Nicole Mitchell isn’t kicking back at all after a heady 2017, during which she performed several world premieres at the prestigious Ojai Music Festival and made two of the year’s most audacious and acclaimed albums. A singular flutist, composer, bandleader, educator and aural provocateur, she is set to soar even higher than she did on those two dynamic recordings, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds and Liberation Narratives, the latter an inspired collaboration with the poet Haki Madhubuti. At press time, Mitchell’s Artifacts trio with drummer Mike Reed and cellist Tomeka Reid is scheduled to perform in May at the Spoleto Festival USA, in South Carolina. In August, the Syracuse-born, Anaheim-raised Mitchell will do a one-week residency at the Stone in New York City and play the Newport Jazz Festival with her Dusty Wings band. She’s also set to perform at festivals in Chicago, Berlin and Vienna with her Mandorla ensemble. Now at work on a solo flute album, for which she’ll double-track all the parts, Mitchell has yet another new record due out soon from her Maroon Cloud quartet and a fall tour planned with pianist Myra Melford and bassist Joëlle Léandre—the free-improv-fueled Tiger Trio.

A key member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians since 1995—Mitchell, 51, became its first female chair in 2005—she is a professor of music at the University of California’s Irvine campus. “Am I a workaholic? Yeah, I got it from both my parents,” she says, adding, “and I’m a doodler!” Mitchell proved as much throughout an April listening session in the control room of Exowax Recordings in northern San Diego County. Her “doodles” included artful drawings and written notes that confirmed she is as focused and free-spirited when listening to music as she is when making it.

  1. Adam Rudolph’s Moving Pictures With Organic Orchestra Strings
    “Return of the Magnificent Spirits” (Both/And, Meta). Rudolph, percussion; Graham Haynes, cornet; Joseph Bowie, trombone, harmonica, electronics; Ralph M. Jones, flute, bamboo flute; Brahim Fribgane, oud; Kenny Wessel, guitar; Jerome Harris, bass; Matt Kilmer, frame drums. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: Ha! Actually, I have no idea who this is. But it’s cool, mixing the harmonica with what I think is a Thai flute. It’s definitely Jon Hassell-influenced. African funk?

AFTER: Oh, it’s Adam Rudolph. I should have thought of him, but this doesn’t sound like the stuff I’ve listened to by him. It makes sense now.


Did you like the use of electronics on this? 

Oh, yeah, it’s really vibrant. And there are some great ’70s references in there. I should have known them, because the approach to the flute playing was kind of Yusef Lateef-like, and I know Adam played with Yusef. What I really like about it, and Adam’s work in general, is he puts a lot of energy into finding ways to create platforms for diversity in the language of music—different instruments coming from different traditions—and finding a way for them to coexist in a beautiful way. That’s something I’m fascinated with in the things I try to do. But Adam’s been at it a long time and mastered it, in a way.

  1. Jeannie & Jimmy Cheatham
    “Blues Like Jay McShann” (Basket Full of Blues, Concord). Jeannie Cheatham, piano, vocals; Jimmy Cheatham, bass trombone; Frank Wess, flute; Curtis Peagler, alto saxophone; Dinky Morris, baritone saxophone; Snooky Young, Nolan Smith, trumpets; Red Callender, bass; John “Ironman” Harris, drums. Recorded in 1992.

BEFORE: Well, that was Amina’s [Claudine Myers] voice. I don’t listen to a lot of big-band stuff, but it’s definitely full of life.

AFTER: Oh, I should have known. You want to dig deep, huh? Jimmy Cheatham! He wasn’t playing so much when I was at the University of California at San Diego, and I didn’t get to play in the [UCSD] band. I literally had just started. I was in his improvisation class.


How important was Jimmy as your first jazz teacher?

He was a messenger. He recognized something in me I didn’t see in myself and pointed me in the right direction. He brought James Newton down to talk to our class, which I’m pretty sure he did for me, and it turned my head around! My memories of Jimmy are more as a teacher talking about the idea of the “law of permutations.” It provides endless possibilities in finding the parameters and working out all the possible combinations. He found me when I was roller-skating on campus while playing Mozart’s Concerto in D on my flute. He said, “I think you should try the jazz improv class!” And I did. Then he sent me to the library to listen to Eric Dolphy. Who was the flutist on the song you just played?

Frank Wess.

It makes sense, because he played with Basie, and so did Jimmy.

  1. Buddy Collette Quintet feat. James Newton
    “Magali” (Flute Talk, Soul Note). Collette, clarinet; James Newton, flute; Geri Allen, piano; Jaribu Shahid, bass; Giampiero Prina, drums. Recorded in 1988.

BEFORE: Oh, a clarinet, out of nowhere! I’m pretty sure that was James [Newton], but I don’t think it was his music. So it makes me wonder if that was David Murray playing clarinet. What I really like about James’ playing is he goes off the chart, in terms of the language. He opens up the possibilities for the instrument outside of the saxophone logic, which is a logic a lot of flute players use. James is showing here that he can do that “sax logic” and then naturally go out and beyond that. When I was starting out, I listened to sax players more than flutists—a lot of Ornette, Coltrane, Albert Ayler. I like the expressiveness of bending notes and changing the color of your sound, and the way saxophonists are able to do that is amazing. I listened to a lot of Fred Anderson. I liked Steve Lacy. Roscoe [Mitchell] is super original, and Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton’s compositional ideas are totally amazing. Who’s the clarinetist playing with James Newton?

Buddy Collette. Geri Allen is on piano.

I thought about Buddy. I knew he was one of James’ heroes. Geri, I wouldn’t have guessed. This is from a 1988 concert? Wow, that’s awesome.

  1. Sun Ra & His Intergalaxtic Arkestra
    “The Forest of No Return” (Second Star to the Right: Salute to Walt Disney, Leo). Sun Ra, piano, synthesizer, vocals; Marshall Allen, alto saxophone; June Tyson, violin, vocals;  Michael Ray, trumpet, vocals; Julian Priester, Tyrone Hill, trombones; Eloe Omoe, alto saxophone, clarinet; Noel Scott, alto saxophone, flute; James Jackson, bassoon, oboe, vocals; Arthur Joonie Booth, electric bass; Earl “Buster” Smith, drums; Nelson Nascimento Santos, percussion. Recorded in 1989.

BEFORE: Well, it’s good to have fun with music! A lot of times we take it way too seriously. I knew it was a live album, because somebody was hitting that mic. There weren’t a lot of instruments playing. So in trying to distinguish some of the voices—and with that sense of humor—I could easily be tricked into thinking it was the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But then some people might think it was Sun Ra.

It was. What made you think so?

They were singing “no one is allowed in here,” and it was too many people for it to be the Art Ensemble. I was listening for piano, but I could tell they were marching around and leaving the stage. Sun Ra pioneered a lot of performance art in jazz and lots of things people take for granted now, like improvising with electronics, which he was doing in real time. He had an amazing mind.


Did you ever meet him?

I had two meetings with Sun Ra, and the first was really intense. He was playing in Los Angeles, when I was 19, and someone told me, “You have to go!” When I went to the ticket booth, the lady said, “The rest of the band is backstage. Just go through the door over there.” So I went back and got to meet June Tyson, Marshall Allen and the band. The trumpeter from Kool & the Gang was also back there. And I talked to Sun Ra. It was amazing, because my mom had a lot of Afrofuturistic ideas and she was from Chicago but had never heard Sun Ra, or even knew what the AACM was. But she definitely had lot of parallel ideas as a self-taught writer. Sun Ra told me, “You should come to Philadelphia when you’re ready to join the band.” I ended up going to Chicago and joined the AACM. If not, I would have gone to Philadelphia and joined Sun Ra’s band!

Doodles by Nicole Mitchell while she listened to music during the Before & After session
Doodles by Nicole Mitchell while she listened to music during the Before & After session
  1. Jaco Pastorius
    “(Used to Be a) Cha-Cha” (Jaco Pastorius, Epic). Pastorius, electric bass; Hubert Laws, piccolo; Herbie Hancock, piano; Lenny White, drums; Don Alias, congas. Recorded in 1976.

BEFORE: That was super dope! Hubert Laws, the master, on piccolo. I haven’t heard this song in a really long time. I want to go back and revisit that now. I want to know who the bass player is. Don’t tell me! Is it Stanley Clarke or Jaco? Yeah, Jaco. And Herbie!

Did hearing Hubert and James Newton inspire you or intimidate you?

When I heard James, I thought, “Is there anything else that can be done on the flute?” And then I thought, “OK, let me find what else there is.” So that was inspiring. With Hubert it was kind of scary, because I wondered, “Will I ever be able to play something else, and will I ever be able to play something that amazing?” At the same time, I had a different aesthetic of how I wanted to play. I enjoy hearing him, but I know I’m not being me if I play like him. I hear things differently, but I love his playing. He set the standard, in a lot of ways.

  1. James Newton Ensemble
    “Elliptical” (Suite for Frida Kahlo, Audioquest). Newton, flute; George Lewis, trombone. Recorded in 1994.

BEFORE: I’m standing on the shoulders of those two. I recognized them from the first phrase, James and George. James’ writing is so undeniable; nobody else writes like that. Obviously, there’s plenty of improvisation, but the lifts and shapes he creates with his writing are amazing. Listening to the two of them, they are very expansive thinkers in the way they move and navigate. They have great chemistry, too. Awesome duet!

I met George in Chicago and he’s been a great mentor. And James was my first mentor. I knew them separately, then I found out that they worked together. I guess it is a small world. George is an amazing musician; both of them are. And their compositional abilities are just as striking as their instrumental abilities.

Jimmy Cheatham talked to you about the “law of permutations.” How well were you able to apply that with the AACM? 


I apply it as an improviser. Because you think about that even if you’re not just playing “jazz” and are in a free-improvised context, having that ability to look at different parameters and not making assumptions. … It gives you a bigger awareness. Jimmy was very literal about dealing with the core. But, conceptually, that idea works in a lot of different situations. With the AACM, you have this idea of total intellectual diversity—a group of people with a whole lot of ideas who support themselves and each other in those differences. And that’s a community that doesn’t exist in too many places, because everybody wants to be of like mind. If you have different ideas, it’s not so easy to get the support. To experiment and explore requires risk. So to have that kind of community is a great, fertile space for developing.

  1. Various Artists
    “Meditations on Integration” (Hal Willner Presents Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus, Columbia). Henry Threadgill, flute, arrangement; Marc Ribot, banjo; Bill Frisell, guitar; Art Baron, tuba; Greg Cohen, bass; Don Alias, cymbals and percussion; Francis Thumm, Harmonic Canon; Michael Blair, drums, flapper and Marimba Eroica. Released in 1992.

BEFORE: That’s pretty cool. You’re really playing with me! Well, that was a super original rendition of a Mingus tune. I really liked the minimalist approach, the John Cage-ian approach. But I have no idea who it is. Very cool use of electronics and percussion.

I think what sounds like electronics is actually some of the 43-tone-scale instruments, created by the late Harry Partch, that are featured here. Your album, Artifacts, with Mike Reed and Tomeka Reid, features reinventions of music by Roscoe Mitchell, your erstwhile collaborator, Anthony Braxton and others. What balance between reverence and adding your own stamp did you strive for? 


That’s a good question, because most of the time I’m doing my own music. In this case we were all choosing compositions, and the arrangements are more a collective decision-making process between the three of us. We felt we had a lot of freedom. At the same time, we kept a certain level of reverence as to how these tunes were done originally. But we weren’t repeating the instrumentation and were obviously approaching things from our aesthetic, in terms of the improvisation and choosing how to work with the material. It was fairly intuitive. Hopefully, we didn’t piss any of the composers off—nobody cursed us out or anything!

  1. Mark Dresser Trio
    “FLBP” (Aquifer, Cryptogramophone). Dresser, contrabass; Matthias Ziegler, electro-acoustic contrabass flute; Denman Maroney, hyperpiano. Recorded in 2002.

AFTER: That was an intriguing journey. That was definitely Mark Dresser on bass. I’m not 100-percent sure of the flutist. You made it hard, because they barely played normally and were just doing the finger clicks. But it sounded like contrabass flute at some point, and not many people play those. At first I thought maybe it was Robert Dick, but I don’t know how often they play together. Then I thought about Matthias Ziegler, because I know he and Mark worked together a lot and he does lots of stuff with extended techniques and contrabass flute. I had a hard time trying to figure out who the pianist was. I thought it could it be Myra [Melford], because she does do prepared piano, but I’m not sure. Denman Maroney? I’ve heard of him.

Are the sounds of acoustic and electronically treated flutes equal for you? 


I haven’t used electronics that much; the Artifacts album is the only one so far. What I wanted to do, which is why I took so long to even start playing with electronics, is challenge myself. What are all the possibilities of how I can alter the flute? Because there are so many, and it took a while to explore those things. Now I’m definitely doing some more investigation about what was done in the past. It’s hard, because I think some people start getting taken over, once they start using electronics, and lose a lot of what they were doing originally. And I don’t want to do that, so it takes time.

  1. Chicago Edge Ensemble
    “Bluster Buster” (Decaying Orbit, Lizard Breath). Dan Phillips, guitar; Jeb Bishop, trombone; Mars Williams, saxophones; Krzysztof Pabian, bass; Hamid Drake, drums. Released in 2017.

BEFORE: Well, you really dug some old gems out, didn’t you? I’ve never heard this, but it sounded fascinating. I definitely want to listen to it again.

How’d you like the drumming by Hamid Drake, your longtime collaborator?


I liked it. The first thing to stick out was the trombonist. The electric guitarist was amazing; the first thing I thought is that it’s not Jeff [Parker]. This is a group from Chicago, right? I might be way off, because I don’t know Sonny Sharrock’s playing that well, but I think it might be him. As for the drumming, I have been listening to Steve McCall lately and I wonder how much Hamid was influenced by him, because I heard some connections. But this is kind of an old recording, I guess, so it might not be Hamid. I thought it was George [Lewis] on trombone and wondered if it was Malachi [Favors] on bass. I want to take a stab at the sax player, but it’s hard. I want to say it was [Anthony] Braxton, but I’m not sure because he changed a lot.

AFTER: Oh, this is more recent; I thought this was an old recording. That’s so funny. I guess it has to do with the way they recorded it, in one room, which made it sound a lot older than it is. Well, I got the Chicago part right! I don’t know Dan Phillips at all, but he sounds amazing.

  1. Robert Dick & the Soldier String Quartet
    “Machine Gun” (Jazz Standards on Mars, Enja). Dick, flute; Dave Soldier, Regina Carter, violins; Judith Insell, viola; Dawn Buckholz, cello; Mark Dresser, acoustic bass; Kermit Driscoll, electric bass; Ben Perowksy, drums. Recorded in 1995-96.

BEFORE: So that was some love for Jimi Hendrix. Is that song called “Machine Gun”? I love Jimi and I’m pretty sure that was Robert Dick. He’s really brought the flute to a whole other planet. He’s certainly an under-sung legend on the flute. I’ve never had a chance to study with him, but I’m happy I’ve had a chance to meet him and play a little bit together. He definitely influenced me. I don’t know who the string players are, but they are pretty amazing. You want to see something? My doodle looks very much like his album cover.

Doodles by Nicole Mitchell while she listened to music during the Before & After session
Doodles by Nicole Mitchell while she listened to music during the Before & After session

Did you ever write anything inspired by a doodle?


I’ve definitely written prose and poetry. I don’t think I’ve made music based off a doodle. That might be something to try!

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Listen to this Spotify list with many of the songs played during this listening session:

Originally Published