Music Reviews

posted: July 11, 2017

Nicole Mitchell Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds

FPE Records, LP or CD
Nicole Mitchell

Composer and flute virtuoso Nicole Mitchell now teaches in Southern California, but her music remains rooted in Chicago, where she recorded Mandorla Awakening II with hometown colleagues. As a former president of the city’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), she reserves the right to draw on any music that interests her, remaking it in her own image, as artists everywhere so often do. She touches on styles from all over; cross-culturalism is part of this album’s subject. Mitchell is fascinated by Afrofuturist science fiction, a tradition ever mindful of how the Middle Passage informs myriad disruptive alien-abduction and time-travel narratives. So it goes with Emerging Worlds, which posits a clash between two cultures on a single planet: one violent and economically stratified, the other (island nation Mandorla) utopian and at peace with nature.

The setup functions as more backstory then enacted narrative—the three pieces with lyrics don’t advance the plot—even as the material expresses a parallel contrast. This eight-instrumentalist edition of her Black Earth Ensemble—with violinist Renee Baker and cellist Tomeka Reid as a pocket string section—adds Japanese instruments and inflections to the mix. To pair off with Mitchell, Kojiro Umezaki plays shakuhachi, improvising in a manner informed by that bamboo flute’s traditions. Chicago bassist Tatsu Aoki also mans the thundering taiko drum and the three-string plucked shamisen, alongside the western strings. (To keep the world-strings theme going, guitarist Alex Wing occasionally doubles on the Egyptian oud and Reid plucks a few notes on banjo. JoVia Armstrong plays drums and percussion.) The ways Eastern and Western instruments either blend or celebrate their differences offer hope we can all get along.

Mitchell loves textural, timbral, and stylistic variety; she has her experimental and populist sides. Raucous collective improvisations contrast with poppy melodies and chugging cello bass lines; an upward surging chord progression suggests a measure of optimism. A single composition may travel from one sonic state to another. On the opening “Egoes War,” ceremonial gongs give way to 70s Miles-style funk, with Wing’s guitar in wailing post-Hendrix territory. (He has other voices: a front-loaded jazz-guitar attack; funky James Brown scratching.) And in the middle of all that density, a slow melody emerges, voiced in agreeably loose unison by violin and two flutes.

Some flautists baby the instrument, and peel back the accompaniment to be easily heard. But Mitchell plays with such force (and uses amplification so deftly), her bands don’t need to restrain themselves. Her liquid sound remains clear as spring water. She’ll sing through the metal pipe to harmonize with herself (like umpteen other flute players), yet the high notes she nails with her voice give her multiphonics a lighter quality than Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s influential shrieks. Along the way you’ll encounter a couple of echoes of Chicago Afrofuturist Sun Ra’s space music: thin cosmic textures and a simulated rocket launch.

On three tracks on the album’s back half, singer/poet avery r young declaims Mitchell’s lyrics with great animation and plenty of repetition—like a preacher feeling the spirit. On “Staircase Struggle” he repeats the line “we keep doing the same thing over and over again” for three minutes, fusing form and content. Testifying on “Shiny Divider,” he name-checks Baltimore, Ferguson, Chicago, and Nepal—just in case anyone was in doubt regarding which conflicted planet Mitchell is talking about.

–Kevin Whitehead