‘Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds’ by Nicole Mitchell Review
The flutist and composer explores Afrofuturist themes with her longstanding group, the Black Earth Ensemble.
Flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell’s career has gone in fits and starts, but she is currently making exciting, broad-based music that spans the borders of jazz and rhythm and blues.
Ms. Mitchell, who is 50, has written many works for chamber ensembles, orchestras, jazz big bands and other settings. She also participates in the collective trio Artifacts with drummer Mike Reed and cellist Tomeka Reid, which will perform in New York at the Vision Festival on June 1, and some of her most ambitious work has been with her longstanding group, the Black Earth Ensemble. Their new recording, “Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds” (FPE Records, May 5), explores Afrofuturist themes.
The term Afrofuturism was coined in the early ’90s, and it typically refers to afro diasporic cultural creations that draw on science fiction, historical fiction, and magical realism. It is associated with the fiction of Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany, but it has been a part of music for decades. The great jazz bandleader Sun Ra claimed Saturn as his home base and used “space is the place” (a reference to both outer and inner) as a mantra in his music. George Clinton’s groups Parliament and Funkadelic used outer-space iconography frequently and their signature prop, a space ship, now sits in the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Recent examples of Afrofuturism can be found in the music of Janelle Monáe and Kamasi Washington.
Ms. Mitchell has been a fan of Ms. Butler’s fictions for decades—she recorded the 2008 release “Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler” (Firehouse 12)—and created her own novella set in 2099 about a couple in transit from World Union, a disintegrating planet, to Mandorla, an egalitarian world where technology and nature coexist peacefully. The music on the new album is performed by an expanded version of the Black Earth Ensemble, which Ms. Mitchell founded in 1998, and features Ms. Reid, bassist Tatsu Aoki, percussionist Jovia Armstrong, violinist Renèe Baker, shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki, guitarist Alex Wing, and vocalist Avery R. Young.
The music ranges from delicate sections featuring virtuosic flute, shakuhachi (a Japanese bamboo flute), violin and cello to gospel-drenched rhythm and blues featuring Mr. Young’s impassioned vocals. The storyline isn’t always clear, but following it isn’t necessary to enjoy the impressive panoply of unusual harmonies, dynamic solos and stellar ensemble play on this recording.
Ms. Mitchell was born in Syracuse, N.Y., and grew up there and in Anaheim, Calif. She settled in Chicago in 1990 and found a musical community of kindred spirits in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the influential group that nurtured the career of dozens of leading African-American composers and performers, and she became the organization’s president in 2009. She is now a professor at the University of California at Irvine.
When she emerged on the scene in the ’90s, Ms. Mitchell was one of the few flutists in jazz, but the instrument is having something of a moment. It is heard in Mr. Washington’s music and increasingly in jazzy samples and live performances by hip-hop performers L’il Yachty, Future and Kodak Black. It suggests that Ms. Mitchell’s music may soon be part of another trend.