Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Nicole Mitchell: Awakening

Nicole Mitchell (flute)
Awakening (Delmark; 2011)
Avreeayl Ra (drums)
Jeff Parker (guitar)
Harrison Bankhead (bass)

Well, I always get a few friends who ask me about jazz flute. Unfortunately most of them are joking (e.g. Will Farrell as Ron Burgundy in the film AnchorMan), but when it comes to jazz flute there are very few out there. Yes, there are a quite a few who double as sax players. But sax is usually the main instrument and flute comes second. So it was a bit of a surprise to receive the new album Awakening (Delmark) by Nicole Mitchell. I really don't own any of her recordings but I have a number of albums she's played on (including the recent Exploding Stars Orchestra, Mike Reed, and Anthony Braxton). Even more surprising was when I told my friends about her, they already knew about her and were shocked I didn't know. Apparently I'm the one who looks like the arse now.

Over the course of the decade Mitchell has been a stalwart on the Chicago scene (as a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music along with legend Fred Anderson and new trailblazer, Matana Roberts), as well as abroad. Her style is very spiritual, African and richly improvisational. Fans of the work by James Finn or John Esposito should definitely take a spin with Nicole Mitchell. Setting the tone for this project, Mitchell utilized a slightly stripped unit from her more complex larger ensembles. These groups also explored larger themes and motifs as you would expect. Awakening with its small group set up allows the quartet to experiment more with sound and space.

"Center Of The Earth" and "Momentum" both are illustrious and expansive pieces where Mitchell's flute is more like Coltrane on sax and not flute. Parker's playing is fluid and highly expressive. Bankhead and Ra keep a steady hypnotic groove that helps both tunes rotate with a real sensuality. "Momentum" contains a few lovely passages from Parker. This is another instance in which Mitchell allows her bandmates to explore structures on the own terms. At times throughout Awakening I felt as though I was listening to the Phil Ranelin era The Tribe, Doug Carn or poetic verse from 70s under-rated poet Wanda Robinson. I was thinking, it might even be nice to spin this at a party along side material from Soweto Kinch. What a way to throw a crowd straight into a history lesson, eh!?!

The quartet gets funky and humorous on "There", a solid number where Mitchell's calm playing guides the group into a rawer but subtle fusion style motifs. The title track "Awakening" closes the album in a midtempo groove with Parker and Ra having some stellar individual moments. Mitchell's playing rises above here with some strong and intense harmonic passages. When listening to Awakening you realize this group has taken a number of subtle but urgent themes and stretched them with excitement and beauty; this makes listening to Awakening a real pleasure. At the end of it all I became a fan in a matter of hours and then went back to a few of the albums I had where Mitchell performs to listen even closer to her vision. Wow. This Awakening is awesome stuff.

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