Nicole Mitchell – Awakening (2011)

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Everybody digs Nicole Mitchell. They love her in sweet hometown Chicago and all the critics in New York love her, too. Heck, even we discerning types at SER have taken a shining to her. She’s the consensus top flautist in the jazz world, she’s got a new record out, Awakening, and there’s no way I’m going to ignore it.

On her last record Renegades (2009), Mitchell was backed up by the delightfully idiosyncratic Black Earth Strings, which put the violin or viola and cello together with her flute to create an exotic meshing of traditional sounds that’s something altogether new. The new album trades in some of the exoticism for a meeting with Chicago’s very best musicians of her generation: Jeff Parker on guitar, Avreeayl Ra on drums/percussion and my new main man on bass, Harrison Bankhead.

Rest assured, though, with this assemblage of musicians playing her compositions (and one by Parker), this might be a less exotic session but it’s no less adventurous. As Mitchell divulges, “with this quartet I tried to put the flute more out front than usual, which is why I decided to just name the project ‘Nicole Mitchell.’ I wanted to dig back into the old-school jazz a bit and yet still make room to branch out into never-never land.”

Sure enough, the album begins with old school, a more mainstream post bop number “Curly Top” and also as promised, Mitchell is out front with one of her signature commanding leads. At times it’s impossible to tell if the sound she’s making is from her flute or her voice. Parker tags along with some soft and soulful single line notes in the solid tradition of Grant Green. Following this congenial, lightly swinging tune come the excursions into never-never land.

“Journey On A Thread” is a trip is the title implies, beginning with a hip-hop strut and soon breaking down into a suspended near-silence, broken up my Mitchell’s quiet ruminations and then more thoughtful patterns by Bankhead. Bankhead, it should be noted, is crucial all over, architecting the groove on this song, supplying the key harmonic counterpoint on “There,” (another avant funky number Nicole Mitchell style) and dishing out the wicked repeating pattern on “Center Of The Earth” (video below). Mitchell’s wild, relentless flute solo on that song, by the way, is for the jazz history books; you’d probably have to go back to Rahsaan Roland Kirk to find flute blowing on record as mind blowing as that one. Parker’s prickly plucking afterwards provides an interesting counterpoint.

At nearly twelve minutes long, “Momentum” is broad in scope, traversing through a whole array of moods. Ra’s handling of the tempo changes with grace and discerning use of cymbals to add constructively to the sound—even when he’s not keeping time—is evidence of a prime drummer. Mitchell’s lithe pronunciations here draws a contrast to the power flute on earlier cuts. That approach is carried over in the Coltranian spiritual of “More Than I can Say.”

Released last May 24 on Delmark Records, Awakening is a heaping helping of the prowess of Nicole Mitchell. A virtuosic and singular performer, she brings the goods—and a trio of ace backing musicians— on this record, making it one not to be missed.

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