September 9, 2013
Nicole Mitchell’s Ice Crystal
Delmark DE 5004
Engraved in the Wind
By Ken Waxman
A major Jazz flautist, Nicole Mitchell recently traded her Chicago base for an academic post at University of California, Irvine. But as these sessions attest, the flautist, who during her two decades in the Windy City played in numerous bands and was an executive of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM), hasn’t let geography or academe slow down her recording schedule. These CDs feature her with quartet of Chicagoans, a mixed French-American quintet and most challengingly, solo.
Recorded in July 2011 in Junas France, Watershed is filled out by other AACMers, cellist Tomeka Reid and Hanah Jon Taylor who plays tenor and alto saxophones, flute and EVI. Bassist Bernard Santacruz and drummer Denis Fournier, who singly or together have played with everyone from Byard Lancaster to Mal Waldron, make up the Gallic contingent. Watershed, the band, appropriately honors its (free) jazz forefathers in the form of Fournier’s “Dannie Richmond”, a salute to Charles Mingus’ long-time drummer, and Reid’s “Prayer for Wadud”, for legendary cellist Abdul Wadud.
Skillfully, the five contrast legato cello pumps and contrapuntal saxophone and flute lines plus reverberations from a billowing thunder sheet to ensure that “Prayer for Wadud” is celebratory as well as melancholy. Meanwhile “Dannie Richmond” is one of the disc’s major statements. Concluding with a triumphant stop-time finale the narrative is most profound during the solos, although appropriately Santacruz’s low-pitched rumbles and the composer’s concentrated thumps define its contours. A Madison, Wisc.-native who often worked with Malachi Favors, Taylor’s crescendo of smears and snorts outline the dramatic theme, while Reid’s double-stopped sawing and Mitchell growling multiphonics break up the line just enough to keep it constantly fascinating. The moving “La Voce de la Luna” – also composed by the drummer – is the other stand-out piece. Theatrical in presentation, it carefully maintains balance between Santacruz’s percussive slaps and Mitchell flat-line but flighty emotionalism.
Recorded more 18 months later, Aquarius is different but as notable. Not only did Mitchell compose all 10 selections, but the band is filled out by three of Chicago’s top indie-jazz improvisers: vibist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly. All often work together in many configurations, and their mutual tough-mindedness counters those hints of delicacy that could arise from the pairing of vibraphone and flute. Instead Adasiewicz’s four-mallet, tremolo reverberations and Mitchell’s roaring vibrations banish lyricism for its own sake, but without losing linear momentum. One instance of this is the effervescent “Above the Sky” which manages to attain the airy otherworldliness Sun Ra specialized in, as flute blasts and paralleled drum and vibe resonations build to an undulating, climax. Meanwhile Abrams’ walking and Rosaly’s backbeat steady the arrangements throughout. With this powerful backup, the front-line can improvise with unparalleled confidence. For example Mitchell’s flutter tonguing hits such a swaggering groove on “Sunday Afternoon” that it appears as if she could carry the melody and the rhythm parts all by herself
That’s precisely what she does do on Engraved in the Wind, her first-ever solo CD. Playing C flute, alto flute and with some selective overdubbing, Mitchell runs through a matchless program of 16 originals and tunes composed specifically for her.
Of the latter, Renée Baker’s “Pratagraha: Virtue of Freedom from Attachment” is particularly affecting. As Mitchell propels a jazz rhythm with embouchure shaping, her curlicue and whirling trills skirt atonality. James Newton’s “Six Wings” is also given a high-pitched aviary treatment. However the more “legit” exercises lead to appropriately respectful readings. With Yung Wha Son’s “Song of Suchness: for instance, Mitchell enlivens his repetative tonal extensions with mischievous whistles and elasticized-to-almost-shattering timbres. No gimmick, overdubbing take advantage of the alto flute’s lowest register, allowing Mitchell to stack various tremolo tones. For instance “High Light at the Waterfall” has a graceful play-party theme, while “Beehive” buzzes appropriately, with strident shrills subservient to low-pitched Queen Bee-like drones.
Mitchell’s crowning achievements occur when only she and a single flute are present. With embellished multiphonics her output resembles timbres from a bagpipe, a harmonica and a Chinese dizi at various times. Staccatissimo slurs on “Making of Rose Quartz” for instance are both legato and bulky, leading to reverberations filling the sound field. Most importantly among the cornucopia of doubled and tripled tones on the final “Fireflies and Mischief on Dada B’s Porch”, is a prominent blues line emphasizing her root jazz commitment.
Accompanied or alone, there are many ways in which to appreciate Mitchell’s art on these CDs.
Tracks: Watershed: Dannie Richmond ;Le Partage des Eaux; Pathways; Prayer for Wadud; La Voce de la Luna
Personnel: Watershed: Nicole Mitchell: flute, alto flute and piccolo; Hanah Jon Taylor: tenor and alto saxophones, flute and EVI; Tomeka Reid: cello; Bernard Santacruz: bass; Denis Fournier: drums
Tracks: Engraved: Blue Mountain; Dadwee; Forest Family; Cave of Forgotten Spring; Six Wings; Beehive; Making of Rose Quartz; Pratagraha: Virtue of Freedom from Attachment; Desert Choir; Boiling River; Song of Suchness; High Light at the Waterfall; Glacier Wall; Agoru III; Engraved in the Wind; Fireflies and Mischief on Dada B’s Porch
Personnel: Engraved: Nicole Mitchell: C flute, alto flute
Tracks: Aquarius: Aqua Blue; Today, Today; Yearning;. Aquarius; Above the Sky; Diga, Diga; Adaptability; Expectation; Sunday Afternoon; Fred Anderson
Personnel: Aquarius: Nicole Mitchell: C flutes & alto flute; Jason Adasiewicz: vibraphone; Joshua Abrams: bass; Frank Rosaly: drums
—For The New York City Jazz Record September 2013