August 20, 2001
NICOLE MITCHELL & BLACK EARTH ENSEMBLE
Dreamtime Records No #
Two myths persist about Chicago's still vibrant Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). One is that the group reached the zenith of its accomplishment in the 1960s and the 1970s. The other, more insidious, is that the organization is unwelcoming to female performers.
Certainly since it was first organized more than 35 years ago, many of the best-known AACMers — including Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell — have moved from the Windy City. But as they do important work elsewhere, local members such as Ernest Dawkins, David Boykin, Ed Wilkerson, Fred Anderson, Kahil El'Zabar and the musicians featured on this intriguing disc, continue to produce sounds which are part futuristic and part traditional.
As for the organization's supposed antipathy towards woman, the lack of female faces in the average AACM ensemble is actually a reflection of the few female who actively pursue the tough "jazz life". Pianist Amina Claudine Myers was onboard from the movement's founding, while other women, usually vocalists have participated over the years. And now there's flutist Nicole Mitchell.
Prominent in Chicago for the past decade, most notably as a member of saxophonist Boykin's Out-tet and co-leading a quartet with saxophonist Wilkerson, she's designed her first CD to show off her versatility.
Adaptable she is, considering that she improvises on the piccolo, alto flute and flutaphone as well as vocalizes both within and outside the regular flute on this more than 73 minute CD, made up of 13 of her compositions. Moreover, despite the fact that her flutes and Savior Faire's violin or viola are the main instrumental voices here, this is no smooth jazz shuck. Instead it's a top-flight, outright swinger, firmly reflecting the slogan of the Art Ensemble, the ACCM's most famous band: Great Black Music Ancient to Future.
How could it be otherwise? Especially since the rhythm section is powered by local tower of strength bassist Darius Savage, with the percussion handled by either former Sun Ra Arketra member Avreeayl Ra or Hamid Drake, drummer of choice for everyone from William Parker to Ken Vandermark.
Listeners to "On The Nile", the disc's longest individual track will no doubt be reminded of the sort of Middle-Eastern motif pieces which visionary saxophonists like John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders pioneered in the 1960s. Mitchell's flute work is gutty enough, however, as is Faire's viola, that saxophone tones aren't missed. Meantime Ra colors the proceedings with a sprinkling of bells and Savage's strong fingers are showcased on a steady, not showy solo.
Straightforward tunes like "Sanctuary: Aaya's Rainbow" and "Off the Clock" highlight the string-flute partnership, especially on the last where the two get into a relaxed call-and-response pattern, which recalls fiddler Michael White's work with Sonny Simmons and John Handy.
Other compositions such as "The Bath" and parts of the "Episodes of an Obscure Life" are more pastoral, more stately and almost semi-classical, allowing Mitchell to show off her silvery tone, but depending on the core of strength to move those vibrations forward. Using the flutaphone — a saxophone-flute combination — on some tracks, Mitchell can achieve warbling saxophone tones when needed, while on "For the Brave" she literally sounds lyrics through her flute.
These stylings, plus the 23 seconds of pure falsetto throat singing on "Bird of Desire" may take a bit of getting used to. That track and "Tale of Youth's Adventure" were recorded outdoors in the Chicago River — shades of Paul Horn at the Ganges. An experiment in split tones, false fingering, aviary notes and throat warbling in front of the river's ambiance, "Tale" stands up as musique d'eau, but the same effects probably could have been created in the studio.
All in all, Mitchell's disc, which outside Chicago is likely only available by e-mailing email@example.com, is a fine achievement. Flute fanciers and AACM followers will be waiting for her next disc. Hopefully it won't be another decade in the making.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Sanctuary: Aaya's Rainbow 2. Vision Quest Part One: Seeking Enlightenment 3. Vision Quest Part Two: Journey of Discovery, Part Three: The Unknown* 4. Episodes of an Obscure Life: Episode One 5. Episode Tow, Episode Three 6. Daddy's Gone^7. Bird of Desire 8. Sweet Tooth 9. Off the Clock 10. For the Brave 11. On the Nile* 12. Tale of Youth's Adventure 13. The Bath^
Personnel: Nicole Mitchell (flute, alto flute, piccolo, flutaphone*, vocals; Savoir Faire (violin and viola); Edith Yokely (violin); Darius Savage (bass); Hamid Drake [tracks 1-5, 8-10](percussion); Avreeayl Ra (percussion)^