NICOLE MITCHELL/BLACK EARTH ENSEMBLE

Afrika Rising
Dreamtime Records 004

Creativity is still common currency in Chicago as the new CD by flutist/composer Nicole Mitchell proves. Even more ambitious than her debut disc (VISION QUEST also on Dreamtime Records) this CD finds Mitchell, who also teaches flute at Chicago State University, convening an even larger Black Earth Ensemble made up of 19 different musicians on various tracks. The result is an Afrocentric disc that shows off not only her flute, piccolo and vocals, but also the wealth of other Windy City talent, many of whom are also part of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

Some of the better known names include everyone’s favorite drummer Hamid Drake; trombonist Steve Berry and drummer Arveeayl Ra, who are part of Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble; pianist Jim Baker who has made CDs with Ken Vandermark and Fred Anderson; trumpeter Corey Wilkes, who has recorded with Roscoe Mitchell; and musicians such as multi-reedist David Boykin and violinist Savoir Faire who work in bands under Mitchell and Boykin’s leadership.

Yet such is the Midwest’s embarrassment of musical riches that two of the other soloists besides Mitchell herself and Faire, who turn out impressive work — trombonist Tony Hererra and pianist Wanda Bishop — are almost unknown outside of Chicago’s South Side. This South Side connection is significant as well. For like The Art Ensemble or Rahsaan Roland Kirk before her, Mitchell’s Afrika is a mythical place, whose sounds include early and modern jazz, country and urban blues and Black religious music, as well as more distinctive influences from the Mother continent. On one tune you can even hear an echo of Kirk’s “Bright Moments”, mixing it up with hard bop piano and a slice of Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang”.

You can experience this bubbling musical stew most clearly on a tune like “Bluerise”, written like all the other material, except for the traditional “Wade in the Water” by Mitchell. With its Mingusian time and tempo changes, this off-kilter blues is driven along by the vocalized trombone of young Hererra with echoes of Tricky Sam Nanton, and some deep dish, rent-party piano from veteran Bishop, who from her picture looks as if she didn’t learn how to play the 12-bar form from a text book. Faire unveils a light swinging tone that relates to the advances of Eddie South, another fiddler and Chicago club mainstay of the 1930 and 1940s, while even Ur-modernist Boykin varies his clarinet showcase between AACM style split tones and old-timey trills that could date back to Johnny Dodds in the 1920s. As the almost 11-minute piece changes shape and tempo as it moves along, Mitchell’s flute often mixes it up with Faire, showing that she can create sounds from deep inside her throat and from her lips while maintaining a bouncy legato tone.

“Wheatgrass” finds her expressing this potent tone on both flute and piccolo (!) as Boykin goes into a heavy bar-walking tenor saxophone mode. In counterpoint, the fiddler is scratching out dissonant asides, while drummer Isaiah Spencer — on his only appearance on the discs — and percussionist Jovia Armstrong, who sounds as if she’s playing a darbuka, combine for some Middle Passage rhythm as American as it is African. After Mitchell and Faire entwine once more in front of riffing R&B-style horns, the piece concludes with a powerful, hard bop bass solo in a Wilbur Ware mode courtesy of Darius Savage

Besides a 53-second exhibition of extended flute technique on “Emerging Light”, Mitchell gets to exercise her vocal chords both wordlessly, with a suggestion of African throat singing on “Intergalactic Healing” and with words on “Goldmind” and “Peaceful Village Town”. With its Oprah-meets-Operation Push affirmative lyrics the former seems to be attuned to the 1960s, while the later with its naïve sentiments about the perfection of rural African life is almost Garveyite in its diasporic nostalgia. Still some hearty obbligatos from Hererra and Faire enliven the first; and what sounds like Armstrong’s mbira mixed with Hererra’s plunger tone and modern 4/4 bass from Josh Abrams prevents the second from becoming too maudlin.

This disc, which available from Mitchell’s Web site at www.NicoleMitchell.com, proves that her music that was promising last time is moving into the realm of must-hear. With such quality to build on, it also makes waiting for her next statement with anticipation, even more of a necessity.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Afrika Rising Trilogy Movement I: The Ancient Power Awakens 2. Movement II: Metamorphosis 3. Movement III: Intergalactic Healing^ 4. Peaceful Village Town^ 5. Emerging Light 6. Umoja (Intro)^ 7. Umoja^ 8. Bluerise 9. Goldmind 10. Wheatgrass* 11. Towards Vision Quest

Personnel: Corey Wilkes (trumpet); Tony Hererra (trombone, shells, vocals); Steve Berry (trombone); Nicole Mitchell (flutes, piccolo*, vocals^) David Boykin (tenor saxophone, clarinet, vocals); Miles Tate III, Jim Baker (piano); Wanda Bishop (piano, vocals); Savoir Faire (violin, vocals); Edith Yokley (violin); Tomeka Reid (cello); Josh Abrams or Darius Savage (bass); Hamid Drake or Isaiah Spencer (drums); Arveeayl Ra (drums, vocals); Coco Elysses (percussion); Jovia Armstrong (percussion, vocals)