Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble: Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler (2008)
The words ‘flute’ and ‘vocals’ on the back of a jazz record can suggest something fairly specific, something that is, well, fine for those who like it. But the combination needn’t necessitate an easy listen and if anyone in recent memory was likely to break the mold, it was Chicago’s Nicole Mitchell.
Mitchell has made good records, but ‘great’ is a pretty tall order. On Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler, she has achieved on disc what those who have seen her perform knew she had in her. It is strong. It is firmly in the tradition of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (she is currently co-president of the Chicago chapter), but also something quite fresh. It’s an inspired work.
The 50-minute suite is dedicated to writer Octavia Butler and is built from her book Dawn. It’s not a literal telling of the story but, as Mitchell writes in the notes, is a “compositional journey...stimulated by my reaction to reading Butler’s novel.” Familiarity with the book, however, is not a precondition to grasping the power of the music. Mitchell works with repetition, dissonance, open-ended soloist sequences, force and fragility in fascinating ways, with a nonet (including saxophonist David Boykin, bassist Josh Abrams and drummer Avreeayl Ra) that fully grasps the richness and diversity of the work.
Mitchell is also a good and not great, singer. As a performer, her talent lies with the flute (which she plays exclusively) and a large part of what defines Xenogenesis Suite is the vocalizing of Mankwe Ndosi. She works well with the lyrics, but is also an impressive abstract singer, carrying melodies and falling in with the group’s improvisations. Ndosi’s presence puts a face on the work, giving it a soulful cry reminiscent of some of Archie Shepp’s more composed, humanist suites. But again, Mitchell isn’t copping Shepp any more than she is Joseph Jarman, Henry Threadgill, Ed Wilkerson or any of the other great AACM composers for large ensembles. She clearly knows their histories and plenty of others as well. It’s knowledge of music and history and humanism and literature that makes Xenogenesis Suite Mitchell’s first important record.
Track Listing: Wonder; Transition A; Smell of Fear; Sequence Shadows; Oankali; Adrenalin; Transition C; Before and After; Dawn of a New Life.
Personnel: Nicole Mitchell: flute; David Boykin: tenor sax; David Young: trumpet; Mankwe Ndosi: voice; Tomeka Reid: cello; Justin Dillard: piano; Josh Abrams: bass; Marcus Evans: drums; Avreeayl Ra: percussion.