Indigo Trio/Michel Edelin

The Ethiopian Princess meets the Tantric Priest
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The Ethiopian Princess meets the Tantric Priest

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Even after the nearly 60 years since it became an accepted double for many woodwind players – and instrument of choice for a select few – the flute still can’t shake off its reputation as a secondary axe for improvisation. But Nicole Mitchell, who recently moved from Chicago to the West Coast, is doing her best to overcome this stigma. Avoiding the transverse tube’s frillier association, in her writing and playing she also stays away from outright timbral experimentation. Nevertheless, as these CDs, recorded within two months of one another demonstrate, impressive improvisations can be created, even as the gold-plated stick retains its so-called lady-like characteristics.

Each quartet disc with a different front-line partner, but with most compositions by Mitchell, is tactfully different. Recorded in Strasbourg, with self-taught, Paris-based Michel Edelin the other flautist, The Ethiopian Princess meets the Tantric Priest is more formal and delicate. Awakening, from Chicago, adds guitarist Jeff Parker, whose affiliations include electro experimenters like Tortoise and cornetist Rob Mazurek, for a more aggressive session. Mitchell, who has held high positions in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM) organization, is backed by fellow AACMers on the two sets. Bassist Harrison Bankhead, who has been in the bands of among others, saxophonist Fred Anderson and trumpeter Malachi Thompson, is on both CDs. Arguably the scene’s busiest Free Jazz percussionist, Hamid Drake completes the Indigo Trio, while Avreeayl Ra, who has played with saxophonists Ari Brown and Ernest Dawkins is on the other disc. For his part, Edelin’s playing partners have ranged from saxophonists Steve Lehman to pianist Sophia Domancich.

United in merit, the personnel is the demarcation line between the two discs. With Edelin, who plays flute and alto flute here, one disc is reminiscent of a Sam Most-Herbie Mann or Buddy Collette-Bob Cooper face off, especially because Mitchell varies her approach playing alto flute and piccolo as well as the standard model. Considering the line-up and the unforced swing due to Parker clean, single-note execution, Awakening’s precursor could be those sets when flautists like Moe Koffman or Paul Horn improvised with orderly guitarists such as Jim Hall or Ed Bickert.

At the same time when the sonic momentum augments on a track like “Momentum”, Parker’s clean, yet linear work suggests Herb Ellis or Barney Kessel, with bluesy asides cozying up to the flautist’s staccato flutter tonguing. Since her work here also encompasses fortissimo whistles and gritty blowing, the four Chicagoans express different emotions from slow romanticism to moderato swing, with Ra’s rebounds plus bass drum emphasis, and Bankhead’s bow slides contributing to the mood.

Throughout, it appears that the quartet members have managed to reach a confluence where tight harmonies lack harsh distortion, but still manage to express emotions whether it’s through Parker’s chiming chords, Mitchell’s narrative linearism or the bassist’s popping thump. This cool detachment even extends into “More Than I Can Say”, composed for the flutist’s fiancé. Although legato flute lines repeatedly quiver with restrained passion, the counterpoint between her angled breath intervals and the guitarist’s resilient strums reference strength not subservience,

The suite-like “Journey on a Thread” is probably the finest instance of her articulated and animated story-telling, as an innocent melody alternates with flute glissandi which speak of a more staccato theme. Irregularly vibrated breaths and mouth buzzing mixed with instrument-produces air give the piece a time-stretching pattern advanced by Parker’s circular comping and Bankhead’s pulsing.

Bankhead’s pulsing is just as noticeable on the other CD, and he even plays some meditative piano on it which gives the dual flutists’ bouncing glissandi context. Overall though his rhythm work coupled with Drake’s inventive kit use manages to pace the eight selections while Mitchell and Edelin extemporize inventive flute sequences. On a tune such as “Inside the Earth” for example their playing has elements of atonality and lyricism at the same time with aviary sweeps and whistling peeps giving way to mellow pitches, while Bankhead walks and Drake cymbal slaps. “Wind Current” on the other hand balances low-intensity and low-pitched glissandi atop pedal-point bass lines and rim shots. Moving from rococo coloration of one another’s narratives to moderato harmonies, the dual flutists make common cause with the rhythm section.

“Call Back”, one of the French flautist’s two compositions, has a stealthy theme that is elongated as Drake sounds a martial beat. With the two flautists soloing in turn, one produces pitched chirps and the other evocative lowing. Eventually as glottal slurps, tongue stops and growls are added to the mix, the capacious climax involves arpeggios from Bankhead, rat-tat-tats from Drake and mixed tongue pressures from Edelin and Mitchell.

Flute fanciers should have a field day with The Ethiopian Princess meets the Tantric Priest, while those seeking more pronounced swing should gravitate to Awakening. What’s clear on both discs is that nowhere does Mitchell – not to mention Edelin – have to make any allowances for the flute’s supposed failings as an instrument for profound improvisations.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Ethiopian: 1. Top Secret 2. Inside the Earth 3. Dérives 4. Wind Current 5. Call Back 6. The Ethiopian Princess Meets the Tantric Priest 7. Ambre Sunset 8. Return of the Sun

Personnel: Ethiopian: Nicole Mitchell (flute, alto flute and piccolo); Michel Edelin (flute and alto flute); Harrison Bankhead (bass and piano) and Hamid Drake (drums and frame drum)

Track Listing: Awakening: 1. Curly Top 2. Journey on a Thread 3. Center of the Earth 4. Snowflakes 5. Momentum 6. More Than I Can Say 7. There" 8. F.O.C. 9. Awakening

Personnel: Awakening: Nicole Mitchell (flute); Jeff Parker (guitar); Harrison Bankhead (bass) and Avreeayl Ra (drums and percussion)