October 16, 2009
Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Strings
Delmark DE 587
Having established herself as one of the primary flute voices in today’s improvised music, Chicago’s Nicole Mitchell has reached the point when she can record within six months of one another such dissimilar – yet equally engrossing – CDs. At the same time however, the sessions also pinpoint yet another evolution in the music as well as the challenge for the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) of which Mitchell is co-chair.
Anaya finds Mitchell as one-third of the co-op Indigo Trio. Her associates, cellist and bassist Harrison Bankhead, best-known for his work with AACM stalwart saxophonist Fred Anderson; and percussionist Hamid Drake – who seems to have played with more improvisers world-wide than just about any other drummer – are, like the flautist, second generation AACMers. The parameters of Anaya thus very much relate to the on-going jazz tradition.
Renegades on the other hand, featuring Mitchell’s Black Earth Strings, matches her with musicians who are either another generation younger than her, or like violist/violinist Renee Baker have an affiliation with non-improvised chamber music. Consequently this disc encompasses African, Native American, so-called classical and even folk-ballad influences – along with jazz and improvised music inflections – factoring in the collective experience of bassist and gimbre-player Josh Abrams, cellist Tomeka Reid and percussionist Shirazette Tinnin. Mitchell – who composed all 16 tracks on the CD – faces the challenge with Renegades of preventing this additional sonic input from overpowering the music’s jazz-based core. That, in the main she succeeds, is the result of allotting those other musical currents appropriate space alongside backbeat blues and jazz soloing.
For instance “Wade”, which takes its core melody from the spiritual “Wade in the Water”, is transformed during the performance. Spacious cello slices and marimba-styled resonation which introduce the initial melodious theme are soon superseded by walking bass lines, ruffs and flams from Tinnin, contrapuntal string extensions and wide-bore flute flutter-tonguing. Similarly, “Ice” extends from Abrams’ steady time-keeping, rasgueado cello accompaniment and the percussionist’s brush strokes and palm slaps to an interlude where Baker offers enough triple-stopping and floating spiccato to suggest Billy Bang. However the ethereal flute trills, and guitar-like picking from the cello are fulfilled by swelling string movements that could easy come from a chamber ensemble.
Three “Symbology” tunes explore atonality with broken-octave node exposure and jagged runs from the strings plus flute lipping and spitting. Yet other piece show just how delicate the multiple music interface is. Shrill contrapuntal flute bites push the instrument towards dizi tones; agitato string bowing take on erhu qualities; while the drummer could be playing a djembe. In contrast, the harmonized string voicing is definitely Europeanized, although a bit spikier.
“By My Own Grace” compounds the melody’s folk-song feel with string strumming and an uncomplicated double bass pattern. Darbuka-like percussion thumps, scrubbed string accompaniment and contrapuntal flute glissandi are what prevent the song from disappearing into wispiness, especially when Mitchell vocalizes a verse of female self-empowerment.
A cooperative vision in contrast, the Indigo Trio’s three powerful musical personalities equally divide the composing and playing chores on Anaya’s eight tracks. Still, the flautist’s “Wheatgrass” gives an idea of how they operate. As Bankhead’s bull fiddle walks with a steadying pace, Mitchell vamps piccolo-like intonation that hockets vibrating timbres and strident cheeps into animated buzzes. Meanwhile Drake uses bounces, rim shots and shuffle rhythms to speed the jazzy syncopation to staccatissimo, prodding Mitchell into andante, agitato timbres. After a recap of the theme, the final section features unison piccolo riffs in counterpoint with Bankhead’s and Drake’s rhythms.
A Bankhead piece such as “A Child’s Curiosity” is even more in the jazz tradition, with his quivering sul tasto thumps and Drake’s rebounds making it seems as if the kid is most inquisitive about the funk vamps that made the reputations of pianist Les McCann and saxophonist Eddie Harris – another Chicagoan – in the 1970s. Countering the drummer’s paradiddles and bounces as well as the bassist’s strong strokes is Mitchell, initially with the only child-like syncopation of the three. Eventually she introduces heavy-breathing staccato timbres and cascading lines which sluice from near inaudibility to concordance with Drake’s thick reverberations.
As for the drummer’s affiliated “Anaya” tunes – named for his granddaughter – the polyrhythms and subverted modes at points reach the World Music-jazz fusion that is also expressed on Renegades. Drags, flams and rolls from his toms and snares plus cymbal slaps and strokes take their place alongside sizzling flute tessitura mixed with glottal extensions. Meanwhile on “Anaya with the Sunlight”, Bankhead finger picks a cross tone so astonishing that he could be playing an oud or a resonator guitar rather than a bass or cello. Functional as well as flighty, this composition plus most of the others, holds to the concept of theme recapitulation for jazz-like reinforcement.
Staying true to jazz’s roots while exploring new admixtures, Mitchell’s work always merits attention whether in trio or quartet form.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Anaya: 1.Sho Ya Right 2. A Child’s Curiosity 3. Anaya with the Sunlight 4. Song for Ma’at (Ma-ah-t) 5. Beloved’s Reflection 6. Wheatgrass 7. Anaya with the Moon 8. Affirmation of the One
Personnel: Anaya: Nicole Mitchell (flute, alto flute and piccolo); Harrison Bankhead (bass and cello) and Hamid Drake (drums and frame drum)
Track Listing: Renegades: 1. Crossroads 2. No Matter What 3. Ice 4. Windance 5. Renegades 6. By My Own Grace 7. What If 8. Symbology #2A 9. Wade 10. Waterdance 11. Symbology #1 12. Mama Found Out 13. If I Could Have You The Way That I Want You 14. Symbology #2 15. Waris Dirie 16. Anaya’s Rainbow
Personnel: Renegades: Nicole Mitchell (flute, alto flute and piccolo); Renee Baker (violin and viola); Tomeka Reid (cello); Josh Abrams (bass and gimbre) and Shirazette Tinnin (drums and percussion)