Nicole Mitchell – Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (2017)

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Never content with being one of the most foremost technicians of the flute in all of jazz, Nicole Mitchell had always put her mastery of the instrument in the service of an expansive musical concept, rooted in Afrofuturism and taking Sun Ra’s pioneering efforts in that realm further than few have. That’s been the mission of the former president of that linchpin of progressive Chicago music, Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Her long-running Black Earth Ensemble has been her main vehicle for carrying out that mission. In fact, Mitchell celebrated the 50th anniversary of the AACM’s 1965 founding with a concert featuring a new Black Earth Ensemble, using that occasion to debut a new set of songs tied together by a theme of a “collision of dualities” between disintegrating dystopia and a peaceful, egalitarian society called Mandorla.

That concert is captured on Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds, now out via FPE Records. Emerging Worlds imagines a future world where people live in spiritual harmony with each other and with technology and nature.

As a music professor at UC-Irvine in the study of “Integrated Composition, Improvisation and Technology,” Mitchell is practicing what she preaches. Just by its makeup, new band she assembled is well-positioned to advance such a grand vision: Mitchell on flutes and electronics is joined by previous associates Renée Baker (violin), Tomeka Reid (cello, banjo), Alex Wing (electric guitar, oud) and Jovia Armstrong (percussion) as well as new members Tatsu Aoki (bass, shamisen, taiko) and Kojiro Umezaki (shakuhachi). With this arsenal of instruments, Mitchell’s songs draw liberally from Africa, Japan, and the West coexisting in a brew of mysticism, laying bare the emotions of both dark reality and bright hope in every note played.

“Egoes War” is one of those scary, accumulating but epic pieces that’s characteristic of the Exploding Star Orchestra (of which Mitchell is a key member), made even distinctive from that ensemble from Wing’s menacing guitar and a relentless cascade of Mitchell’s flute. Mated to jungle percussion, it realizes already Mitchell’s brand of music that brings together all the disparate cultural sources from around the world into a cross-ethnic whole that truly stands apart.

The following mini-suite of songs go off in another direction, one that’s freely flowing and placid. Aoki’s shamisen on “Sub-Mission” provides a distinctly Japanese tint, and “The Chalice” is a continuation where the primary focus turns to Baker’s violin. A circular figure on guitar signals the start of “Dance of Many Hands,” where flutes and violin intertwine before giving way to the percussion groove and a cello feature by Reid.

“Listening Embrace” includes a weirdly alluring blend of flute, violin and theremin that perfectly simulates the role of a vocal chorus. Mitchell later plays it in the pocket on a real skinny groove constructed by Aoki and Armstrong.

Raucous rock and African rhythms meet head-on again with “Forest Wall Timewalk,” Wing sounding particularly nasty. When the smoke clears, avery r young’s “we keep on doing the same thing over and over” chant emerges, signaling a new movement, “Staircase Struggle,” the bulk of which is his impassioned poetry recital while the Black Earth Ensemble swirls around him. He follows that up with a passionate denunciation of racial violence for “Shiny Divider.”

A flute and shakuhachi flutter around like birds chasing each other on the airy, exotic “Mandorla Island,” and young returns to sing on “Timewrap,” summing up that collision of the opposing worlds “where the velvet blanket of the coal black night covered the sky with piercings of light…from the other side.”

Following in the hallowed footsteps of spiritual visionaries like Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Nicole Mitchell has carved out a clear, updated vision of her own, and Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds is a vibrant manifestation of her fears and hopes in this crazy world.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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