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Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble: Intergalactic Beings (FPE)

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Ambitious, dense and daunting, Chicago flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell’s Intergalactic Beings is a suite of darkly cinematic music inspired by the work of African-American science fiction writer Octavia Butler. The forbidding sounds conjured by Mitchell’s 10-piece Black Earth Ensemble full-bloodedly embrace the concept of the alien. Her bold contribution to the art of Afrofuturism connects the all-embracing avant-gardism of the AACM, the cosmic chaos of the Sun Ra Arkestra and the nebulous sonic experimentation of Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra, of which Mitchell is a member.

In her liner notes, Mitchell describes a bleak story of alien abduction and interspecies mating, which she attempts to depict through the intense abstraction of her hour-long suite. The CD doesn’t begin so much as emerge, Joshua Abrams’ deep bass growl summoning primordial grunts and rumbles from various corners of the ensemble on the 10-minute opener, “Phases of Subduction.” Scraps of melody intrude via David Boykin’s bass clarinet, but these are repeatedly overwhelmed by jarring squawks and scrapes. Mankwe Ndosi’s vocal rasps and wordless (at least in any human tongue) vocals suggest the otherworldly horror.

The remainder of the album is hardly any more forgiving, though “The Ooli Moves” rides the buoyant rattletrap rhythms of drummer Marcus Evans and percussionist Avreeayl Ra, with furious bowing by violinist Renée Baker and android fretwork from guitarist Jeff Parker. Mitchell sticks largely to guiding this amorphous beast through its strange paces, but finally sets her inventive flute free on closer “The Inevitable,” ending things on a more invitingly Earthbound note.

Originally Published