Nicole Mitchell’s Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds, which her Black Earth Ensemble performed at the Pritzker Pavilion on the first day of the 2018 Chicago Jazz Festival, is a visionary Afrofuturistic fable of new beauty arising from old—“merging,” as Mitchell has said, “the chalice with the blade, the urban with the earth-focused, the electronic/electric with the acoustic, the female with the male.” And, she might have added, the past and present with the future. The Ensemble’s instrumentation made this clear; the ancient sounds of traditional Asian percussion, wind, and string instruments (taiko, shamisen, shakuhachi)melded seamlessly with the outer-space ululations of a theremin alongside more ostensibly conventional “jazz” and “classical” voices. Musical stylings ranged from ensemble blends rooted in the Western canon through funk, fusion, art rock, and post-Sun-Ra free-form harmonic cosmology, all the way back home to deep-roots soul/gospel testifying.
Although flutist Mitchell had to bow out at the last minute due to a family medical emergency, her Ensemble, honed to a fine edge, more than did justice to her vision with an array of textures, colorations, and flights of ecstasy both carnal and spiritual. They also set the tone for the entire event: With its diverse and multifaceted program, this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival (Aug. 29-Sept. 3) expressed a determination to challenge such concepts as genre, generation, even time itself. As the late composer Louis “Moondog” Hardin put it, “Today is yesterday’s tomorrow, which is now.”