To a great degree, Liberation Narratives is a Nicole Mitchell album in the way that Clifford Brown With Strings is a Neal Hefti album. It’s incidental music, created as settings for Chicago poet Haki Madhubuti’s readings of his own work. Yet there are differences, and they place this recording among Mitchell’s most moving and interesting.
For one thing, Mitchell does leave some room for improvisation under and around Madhubuti’s words. That’s most obvious in solo features such as Tomeka Reid’s strident cello intro to “Rise Vision” and trumpeter Pharez Whitted’s old-school Chicago blues solo on “Gwendolyn Brooks.” But full-length solos are few and far between. The real improv meat is in the more subtle, but wondrous, comps and fills: Mitchell’s traipsing flute strains in “Woman Black,” violinist Renee Baker’s “hurricane” behind Madhubuti on “Move Into Our Own.”
Yet most of the music consists of backgrounds and vamps. If occasionally these take on a life of their own—pianist Miguel de la Cerna’s insistent syncopation on “Too Many of Our Young”; bassist Harrison Bankhead, percussionist Jovia Armstrong and drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s interlocked alchemy on “Often Hard to Believe”—that’s a side effect; they’re there to support Madhubuti’s beautiful words and voice, both of them simultaneously soft and dramatic. He is occasionally complemented by the singer Ugochi, who abstracts refrains out of his lines but also weaves with him: On “Gwendolyn Brooks,” they create a staggered collage of uses of the word “black.” The heartbeat of the people, Madhubuti tells us, “is in two universal forms: music and poetry.” Liberation Narratives is certainly an effective demonstration.