Sometimes you honor tradition, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, you recognize that you’ve become part of it. For their self-titled debut album, released in 2015, the Chicago-based trio Artifacts—flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid, and drummer/percussionist Mike Reed—showcased compositions that had been written and originally performed by some of the most esteemed guiding lights of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), including Anthony Braxton, Fred Anderson, Roscoe Mitchell, and Amina Claudine Myers. For their follow-up, last year’s …and then there’s this, they took a different tack, acknowledging that all three Artifacts members are themselves longstanding AACM members (Mitchell was the association’s chair from 2009 to 2011). Although the disc includes two pieces from the oeuvres of their forebears—Muhal Richard Abrams’ “Soprano Song” and Roscoe Mitchell’s “No Side Effects”—the emphasis is on fresh compositions.
This is the way Reid puts it: “We were just paying tribute to AACM composers, and then we were like, ‘Oh! Well, we’re AACM composers ourselves, so we can contribute music [too].’”
From the opening passages of Mike Reed’s “Pleasure Palace,” the album’s first track, a spirit of celebration coupled with earnest but lightly worn artistic craftsmanship infuses the proceedings; it’s no accident that words like “groove” and “fun” pop up repeatedly in the group’s press releases. Meanwhile, two of the new tunes—“J.J.,” a tribute to the late reed/woodwind virtuoso Joseph Jarman, which Reid says began as “an improv that got named later,” and “A.F.,” a paean to the late drummer Alvin Fielder—carry on the trio’s ongoing mission of paying respect to its Chicago roots. If, as poet Toi Derricotte has reminded us, “Joy is an act of resistance” (and if we consider the liberation-focused history of the AACM, as well as the histories of all three Artifacts members), . . . and then there’s this serves as both a manifesto and a welcoming.
A Matter of Trust
The Artifacts story extends back decades. Mitchell, Reid, and Reed are longtime friends who have collaborated on multiple projects through the years. Their shared history was a primary impetus behind Reid’s decision to put the trio together in 2015. At the beginning, though, the idea wasn’t necessarily to create a new ensemble that would evolve into a significant force on its own. That arose almost serendipitously—presaging, in a very real sense, much of what has transpired with Artifacts since.
“Actually,” Tomeka Reid explains, “this was the same year as the 50th anniversary of the AACM, and I couldn’t make any of those events, so I was [thinking], how can I still celebrate and show my appreciation and honor the legacy? So I came up with a few ideas—at the time I was the big-band director for the Vancouver Jazz Festival for the high-school kids there, so we did a program of all AACM composers—and then I thought, Niki [Nicole] and Michael have been my big mentors and collaborators here in Chicago, and they’re [also] AACM members. That’d be fun, to have a group with them.”
She certainly didn’t have to ask twice. Both Mitchell and Reed are effusive in their praise of one another, as well as of their cello-playing colleague. Being invited to join the trio, Mitchell says, was “a no-brainer.” Reed, who juggles his musical career with his work as owner/manager of Constellation and co-owner/manager of the Hungry Brain (two of Chicago’s premier creative music venues), felt and continues to feel the same way: “Not only do we have references of records, of other people’s records that all of us [have] liked and shared our expression of liking all over the years, [but also] … we have a shared space of being together that we just kind of know. You can’t replace that.”
The result, Mitchell has noted, is three artists “supporting each other as composers—contributing to each other’s arrangements, developing more of a vibe in our grooves, and getting almost telepathically close in our open improvisations. So that’s a lot of fun, that we support each other and travel together, have a good time, and [are] friends, and make music.”
“I like this thing that I call ‘together/not together,’ where people move similarly, but not in full unison.” –Nicole Mitchell
Reid affirms that it’s precisely this meld of common aesthetic vision and personal bond that continues to be one of Artifacts’ strongest assets: “There’s trust in the band, where everybody wants everyone to sound good, or do their best, so there’s not trickiness happening.”
Indeed, the dialogue between Mike Reed’s drums and Tomeka Reid’s cello that kicks off “Pleasure Palace” could almost serve as a manifesto in itself: The members of this group listen to one another as carefully, and as intently, as they create. “We’re all trying to work out our compositional ideas in a very thoughtful and deep way,” Reed says. “We’re moving with each other and trying to feel the phrasing together. You have to be conscious—the next beat or the next ‘bar,’ quote-unquote, might shift slightly. So it has a little more of, I would say, a dance aspect to the movement.”
A similar dynamic makes itself known in “Reflections,” a Mitchell composition that features her flute and Reid’s cello buoyed by a richly variegated swing/funk line from Reed, all interweaving with such apparent effortlessness that the idea of one “reflecting” another (which Mitchell suggests was her intention: “One thing that I thought about was the reflection in water”) becomes almost moot. As the piece progresses, Mitchell and Reid seem to merge into one, yet neither loses her individuality; there are still two distinct voices, each expressing itself fully. It’s a merging of the “part” and the “whole”—or, perhaps, the “self” and the “other”—that’s all the more striking for the way it seems to challenge a lot of assumptions about autonomy and individuality that pervade (and too often corrupt) mainstream Western culture.
“I like this thing that I call ‘together/not together,’” Mitchell elucidates, “where people move similarly, but not in full unison. It’s like in nature, things might be moving in a direction but then, like, every duck or butterfly or whatever animal it is, it’s going to move [its] own way in the same direction, but not exactly in unison.”
As the musicians’ identities interweave to create new composites and possibilities, so do the roles of their instruments. Mitchell has become renowned for stretching the sonic potential of the flute; in her hands it’s as likely to be a rhythm instrument as a melodic one—evident in her work with Artifacts, where her rasps, growls, occasional shrieks, and pulsating accompaniments add color, depth, and percussive flavorings to the ongoing musical dialogue.
This arises partly from her conscious effort to challenge stereotypes. “Absolutely!” she emphasizes. “I’m absolutely fighting the cliché, because I don’t like this whole idea of ‘The flute is just flowery and sweet and nice . . .’ No! It can be whatever it wants to be. It can be edgy, it can be intense, it can be really expressive, it can be a lot of things, just like any other instrument.”
By her own account, she’s cultivated this ability throughout her career as a matter of necessity, but also in response to inspiration—again, purposeful serendipity. “When I first moved to Chicago,” she explains, “I played on the streets. I had to, because I didn’t have bus fare! So what did I do? I was playing with drummers. I was playing with [well-known Chicago street drummer] Deacon Don, and I played with some of the Muntu [Dance Theatre] drummers; I would play on 63rd Street Beach—they’d have sunrise sessions, and then the drum circle, which we called Congo Beach—so playing with drummers has always been kind of my root sense of improvisation. [Even earlier] when I was in California, that was how I started improvising, [by] playing on the street. And then also the mentorship with Hamid Drake, being in the Indigo Trio [with bassist Harrison Bankhead in the late 2000s], we had a really great interaction, and I hear him in my head; I hear him all the time, I hear his playing, and I feel like it’s a part of me, like his drumming is a part of my playing.”
(Drake is a highly melodic drummer who incorporates pitch and tone into his work as diligently—and effortlessly—as he does rhythm and texture, so the mentoring bond between him and a woodwind virtuoso like Mitchell is not as surprising as it might at first seem.)
One of Mitchell’s calling cards is her vocal technique—not just humming or intoning along with her playing, which is common among jazz flutists, but inserting sung notes into her solos with such accuracy and precision that even a careful listener might have trouble telling where one “instrument” (or “voice”) leaves off and the other begins. Characteristically, she says she can’t remember exactly how or when this evolved, but she’s sure it arose spontaneously during a performance: “When I first started doing that, I don’t know if it was the look on my face, because it was still kind of a surprise even to me—the very first time I did it, the audience fell out laughing! But [now], basically every song, there’s some part of it that I’m singing into. That’s my trademark.”
“We were just paying tribute to AACM composers, and then we were like, ‘Oh! Well, we’re AACM composers ourselves, so we can contribute music [too].’” –Tomeka Reid
Mike Reed, who approaches his own playing with a similar dedication to enhancing his instrument’s range, also cites Hamid Drake as an influence. He adds that working in Artifacts has accentuated this facet of his musical personality even more:
“The interplay is really important here. Especially from [Reid and Mitchell’s] two standpoints, they really can change the traditional aspect of their instruments’ role. Then from my standpoint, I think I’m a lot more of a colorful drummer than a lot of people might be in [this] situation, and I try not to cover them up. It’s definitely conscious; there’s parts of any performance where I wish I was playing another instrument, only for the fact that I could do other things. I don’t want to be confined just to the rudimental idea of the drum set—it’s like, how can I get different sounds out of it? How can I be part of the music without doing what the drums actually do here? Especially free improvising, [which] is a large part of what we do in this trio, how do I allow this discussion to go different places? Sometimes drummers will get up there and play free, and all they’ll do is use the mallets to make big washy sounds—all right, well, that’s really boring—so those are all challenges to how to be involved in the music.”
“We’re [all] just trying to play music,” Tomeka Reid adds, “and it just so happens that whatever instrument we’ve chosen is a tool that we’re using, but ultimately we’re just trying to create whatever sounds that the music needs, even if our instrument isn’t a drum, or isn’t a wind, or isn’t a string. [Artifacts] gives me full autonomy to explore that. I think that’s where the percussive thing is; I really like rhythm, so it’s like, okay, they’re doing this, how can I come up with some sort of complementary rhythm to fill in? That’s one of the luxuries of playing a string instrument—you can bend, you can slide, you can get these glass qualities, you can get all these different qualities to help the lush carpet that’s already being made by [the other musicians].”
Ancient to the Future
In the Artifacts aesthetic, chronological time is as fluid as metric time, the range and potential of their instruments, and distinctions between “composed” and “improvised.” Mitchell, Reid, and Reed don’t draw strict binary delineations between their own musical voices and the voices of the ancestors, whether they’re honoring those voices in their own works or revisiting past masterpieces. “One thing that’s special about playing this music,” Mitchell professes, “is that composers, especially nowadays, are compelled to keep creating—and then you leave all these things behind that you don’t play anymore. That’s kind of the culture that we’re in, we just keep moving, keep doing something else.
“But there’s something about treasuring these things. These pieces [are] like little treasures that have so much to unfold. And that’s partly where the ‘Artifacts’ name comes from, because we need to value all this work; there’s so much we can celebrate and have fun with, when you approach [it] with your spirit, and your own light.”
It’s not too much of a stretch, then, to suggest that Artifacts is reflecting the same insight expressed by vocalist and AACM mainstay Dee Alexander, who has said that when artists (or anyone else) make the transition from being elders to being ancestors, they don’t really depart; their spirits live on in the gifts they’ve left behind, and as long as we continue to honor their legacies, their spirits also live within us. Tomeka Reid certainly had this in mind when she composed “Song for Helena,” a meditative yet uplifting paean to the late mother of her husband David Brown, a designer and educator based at the University of Chicago’s School of Architecture. “It’s like the person still lives on,” she notes, “even if they’re not here with us on this plane. She’s still giving gifts to us; even just … like the cookware we used at Thanksgiving, you know? That was his mom’s. She’s still giving, and that’s pretty awesome.”
Looking back again to the interweaving and melding of identities invoked in “Reflections,” Reid emphasizes that this acknowledgment of continuity and the dissolution of borders—between people, musical genres, generations, eras—echoes and affirms the guiding spirit that both motivates and uplifts the Artifacts Trio. “It’s kind of like,” she concludes, “when you tell your partner or your friend, ‘Oh, you’re so beautiful,’ and they say, ‘I’m just reflecting you.’”