Nicole Mitchell long ago established herself as one of the strongest and most original flutists at work in jazz and improvised music, and over the last decade or so she’s put more and more energy into her practice as a composer. During her years in Chicago she wrote countless themes of great rhythmic malleability and melodic concision for her jazz-oriented group Black Earth Ensemble, but Mitchell, who left the city to teach at University of California at Irvine in 2011, now focuses primarily on long-form suites. Today her latest effort with Black Earth Ensemble, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds—recorded live at the MCA in May 2015 as part of the Creative Music Summit—drops on the Chicago label FPE Records.
Her interest in this sort of writing emerged in 2007, when she premiered two different suites, one of which—Xenogenesis Suite, an ambitious piece inspired by the writings of Octavia Butler—made clear her deep interest in Afrofuturism. Since then her writing has often returned to themes melding science fiction and race, and that includes Mandorla Awakening. As she writes in her liner-note essay, in conceiving it she envisioned an island deep in the Atlantic Ocean in 2099, a haven from a destructive, decaying “World Union” in the throes of war and a global pandemic. Over the course of several generations the inhabitants of Mandorla have become immune to the virus, and their communalism and spiritually focused lifestyle stands in stark contrast to the divisive, shallow, and selfish practices of the World Union—a divide that presents itself dramatically with the arrival of a couple from the mainland who must adapt to the island’s cooperative ethos if they want to escape the assured demise of their homeland. As Mitchell writes, “I’m curious about discovering what happens if we unify duality by smashing together two worlds: a dystopic world and utopic world. Can human consciousness be transformed by embracing fears and establishing balance?”
The second half of the concert-length piece features a libretto by Mitchell sung with gospelized fervor and intensity by Avery R. Young, with lyrics that extend beyond the work’s story line to address a more general conflict. The music is dense, and while there’s plenty of strong improvising over its 74 minutes, Mitchell’s compositional presence is dominant, her propulsive meditations constructed with rigorous counterpoint. There’s a strong Asian component to this version of Black Earth Ensemble: guest musician Kojiro Umezaki plays shakuhachi, bassist Tatsu Aoki shamisen, and Alex Wing oud (though elsewhere on the record he plays a lot of searing, extroverted, electric guitar), and they blend beautifully with the cello of Tomeka Reid, the violin of Renée Baker, and the resourceful percussion of Jovia Armstrong. You can hear the ensemble, with Young going full throttle, below on the piece “Shiny Divider.”
Mathiesen/Svendsen/Wildhagen, Momentum (Clean Feed)
Jessica Aszodi, Prayer for Nil (Hospital Hill)
Julio Cueva y su Orquesta, Desintegrando (Tumbao)
Bonnie Prince Billy, Best Troubador (Drag City)
Joe Lovano Quartet, Classic! Live at Newport (Blue Note)