Nicole Mitchell, an Innovative Flutist With an Afrofuturist Vision
Posted January 10, 2018 5:47 p.m. EST
CHICAGO — The octet Bamako*Chicago Sound System had played almost an entire set at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival here in September when the woman who’d brought together this group — a rare convergence of Malian and Chicagoan improvisers — finally took a solo of her own.
When Nicole Mitchell did, her flute rose crisply above the ensemble’s sound, a mix of Chicago jazz’s windy clatter and the glinting lacework of the Malian musicians. Often she held a single note just long enough to establish balance, then launched swiftly up to a higher altitude.
Mitchell, 50, the artist-in-residence at this week’s Winter Jazzfest in New York, brings an eclectic ear and a frothy vigor to her instrument. The flute is rarely given much of a chance in jazz — maybe it seems too quiet, too liquid, too fey — but she has transcended all that, becoming a leading voice of the music’s cutting edge.
Yet Mitchell has the demeanor of an author more than a protagonist. Her projects typically begin with a conceptual narrative and end as a group endeavor, with many voices spilling into a collective expression. What can sometimes be forgotten is that Mitchell is probably the most inventive flutist in the past 30 years of jazz. So too can the fact that all her music — from its fetching melodies and shadowy harmonies to the synergistic resolve of her bands — flows from her careful engineering.
That was the case with Bamako*Chicago Sound System, a group that Mitchell co-leads with Malian kora player Ballake Sisoko, but that began as her brainchild. And it’s borne out particularly on the two remarkable albums she released last year: “Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds,” featuring her Black Earth Ensemble; and “Liberation Narratives,” a collaboration with poet and activist Haki Madhubuti, her mentor for over 25 years. Drawing in part on his influence, Mitchell founded the Black Earth Ensemble, a midsize group with a rotating cast, in the mid-1990s. The music she writes for it focuses on a storytelling sensibility. She started working on “Mandorla Awakening” — the ensemble’s most recent project and, so far, its masterpiece — after reading “The Chalice and the Blade,” the Riane Eisler book that sorts societies into two columns: those guided more by the will toward domination, and those that are more partnership-based and collaborative.
“'Mandorla’ really started with philosophical questions, like: What is progress?” Mitchell said in an interview at a cafe on the South Side here. “There’s no more delusions about the fact that we don’t treat each other any better, as people, than we did thousands of years ago. So this idea of progress that we’re really focused on in our culture isn’t real in a lot of ways.”
She wrote a story set in 2099, about a remote land called Mandorla Island, where the population has mastered the balance between technological innovation and environmental conservation. A couple from the outside world arrives and realizes that they must adapt to Mandorla’s ancient customs to avoid the ravages of global warfare and environmental destruction sweeping the rest of the planet.
“The narrative came from kind of colliding dystopia and utopia together, finding ways to have this coexistence of things that are considered to be not compatible,” she said. To that end, she brought together jazz musicians from Chicago’s scene with practitioners of traditional Japanese instruments. As in the “Mandorla” story line — and so many of Mitchell’s endeavors — she saw latent potential in an encounter with the unknown.
The album proves that grand artistic ambitions can serve to catalyze as much as to proclaim. The dynamics shift dramatically — from strong, full-sail solos by Mitchell that are bluesy and chromatic and abstract to powerful beats carried by the cello and the cajón. Poet Avery R. Young recites Mitchell’s free verse, relating the futurist tale of Mandorla to the contemporary black freedom struggle.
As a child Mitchell remembers drawing inspiration from her mother, a painter whose imagery often featured black women in distant worlds, with seemingly superhuman powers. Her mother also read the politically laced science fiction of Octavia Butler, years before Afrofuturism became an established idea.
Living in Syracuse in the 1970s, her mother helped start the Black Folk Art Gallery, now called the Community Folk Art Center, and became close with a coterie of artists. But when Mitchell’s father pursued a job in the Los Angeles area, the family had to move. Attending a nearly all-white school in Anaheim, Mitchell experienced racist bullying far more bitter than what she’d seen in upstate New York.
“'Roots’ came on TV, which is supposed to educate people, but the result was boys chasing me around with ropes and trying to whip me and calling me Kizzy,” she said.
She feels the area’s racial hostility contributed to her mother’s suicide, when Mitchell was 16. She pledged after her mother’s death that she would become an artist, espousing the same ideas of pride and invention that she had.
Mitchell attended college at the University of California, San Diego, then transferred to Oberlin, but she dropped out and moved in 1990 to Chicago. It was her mother’s hometown, and Mitchell had spent her happiest days of childhood there, visiting extended family. She soon found community at Third World Press — Madhubuti’s esteemed African-American bookstore, school and publishing house — and at the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. (Nowadays, Mitchell finds herself unexpectedly back in California, where she lives part time, and is a music professor at the University of California, Irvine.)
“When she showed up one morning, she was serious. I could see it in her eyes. And she worked her way into the family,” Madhubuti said. Mitchell started out as a volunteer, and went on to work for the press for 13 years. In 2014 Mitchell approached Madhubuti about doing “Liberation Narratives” as a way to celebrate and spread his poetry. The album was released in September.
At Third World Press and in the AACM, Mitchell found something akin to her mother’s experiences with the Community Folk Art Center in Syracuse. “I think my exposure to that group helped me know what I was looking for when I got older, in terms of black creative thought and people being self-reliant and creating their own institutions,” she said.
By the mid-1990s, Mitchell had also become deeply invested in the AACM, which had fostered expansive black creativity and community organizing on the South Side since 1965, but was going through lean times. In 2009, the group’s 44th year, Mitchell became its first female chair.
She helped write grants; recommitted the group to its youth-education initiatives; and shepherded younger musicians. “She felt that the organization needed fresh blood, and that with the musical things that we had been working on with other people — like Josh Abrams and Tomeka Reid and a lot of other folks — it all just made sense to invite us,” said Mike Reed, 43, a drummer. “That mentoring aspect became important again, where I think maybe it had gone away.”
Reid said Mitchell was working to elevate the organization: “She was really trying to be open-minded, inclusive, thoughtful about men and women having voices.”
Mitchell also helped establish a regular performance schedule for the Great Black Music Ensemble, a flagship big band that showcases original material by AACM members. Its fluid, earthen sound is not unrelated to the aesthetic of Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble.
In that tradition, the Black Earth Ensemble mingles Afrocentrism with an ambivalence to genre, and delivers messages of empowerment with an activist’s audacity. It chases the ambitious idea, Mitchell said, “that music has the power to be transformative, and that we can create visionary worlds through music that can allow us to see alternatives in the way we live.”