Nicole Mitchell: Flute, Healing and Wanting the Best


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Composer, bandleader and flutist Nicole Mitchell isn't quite a household name in jazz circles outside Chicago, but there's not a more talented flautist—or, for that matter, composer, or large-ensemble bandleader—working in improvised music today. It's not surprising she's a co-president of the Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the Chicago collective associated with Windy City improv greats like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Muhal Richard Abrams and Henry Threadgill, because her own work is a direct continuation of the Afrocentric, roots-inspired but courageously experimental and warmly humanistic music of those artists.

Best known for her shifting-personnel large ensemble Black Earth Ensemble, Mitchell's sprawling but deeply melodic compositions make the most of Black Earth collaborators like percussionists Hamid Drake and Avreeayl Ra, saxophonist David Boykin, violinist Savoir Faire, trumpeter Corey Wilkes and many other mainstays of Chicago's South Side jazz community. Black Earth's three recordings—Vision Quest (2001), Afrika Rising (2002) and Hope, Future and Destiny (2004)—on Dreamtime Records, the label she runs with Boykin, are so good that their relative obscurity seems almost criminal.

If the Black Earth Ensemble CDs showcase Mitchell's band leading and compositional skills, several recent recordings present her as an improvisational flautist of the highest caliber. The self-titled debut album from the collective band Frequency, released on Thrill Jockey in late 2006, didn't make my 2006 Best-of list, and I've been kicking myself for excluding it every time I listen to it—no music seems more representative of what makes Chicago great and unique in jazz music, and it's the only music I've heard in years that's reduced me to tears. It's lovely stuff.

Live in Montreal (Greenleaf, 2007), a thrilling set of mostly-improvised material by the Indigo Trio consisting of Mitchell, Hamid Drake and bassist Harrison Bankhead (also of Frequency) is almost as good, and may be the best source for those seeking Mitchell the flautist as opposed to Mitchell the composer, as the trio format allows plenty of space for her technically crisp, melodically imaginative and profoundly heartfelt playing.

One gets the impression Mitchell's profile is finally rising outside of Chicago. She was named #1 Rising Star Flutist for 2006 by Down Beat Magazine, surely a sign of growing recognition, and no player seems more highly esteemed by her fellow musicians. She's also an extremely pleasant person with an almost gleeful—and infectious—laugh. She's not an ironic person, or a jaded one—she believes in the power of music to uplift and celebrate human existence, and that quality of joy and positivity is omnipresent in her music. I spoke with Mitchell on the telephone as she hurried to run errands before she left town for Paris (her trip to the dry cleaner has been omitted from the interview transcript).

Chapter Index

  1. Frequency
  2. Indigo Trio
  3. Black Earth Ensemble
  4. As Yet Unreleased Material: Nicole Mitchell Trio and Solo Work
  5. AACM


All About Jazz: The first group of yours I want to discuss is Frequency, a collective quartet consisting of you, saxophonist Ed Wilkerson, bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Avreeayl Ra. I believe this band's been in existence since 2000, but you have a longer history with these musicians and an absolutely stunning rapport with them as well.

The group's self-titled debut album came out last year on Thrill Jockey. Everyone writes for this group, and the record is just very, very good—composed of equal parts memorable, beautiful melody and pure, shimmering sound—like, I think, a lot of things you're involved with. There's so much joy of communication and the music is so evocative of place and setting—the pieces are like sonic movies. It's vastly improvisational music, and there's a very human kindness to the playing. How'd the group form?

Nicole Mitchell:: Well, Ed Wilkerson and I were actually doing a musical; we were doing West Side Story together. That was really the time that I got to know him a little better. So he just said, "Why don't we start playing together? Let's do something together. Because as you know, most of his work has been with 8 Bold Souls, which is a large group, and having such a large group can be a challenge economically, in terms of getting work—but it also doesn't leave as much space for him as an improviser. And he's a great improviser, but he focuses on his compositional work.

And I do the same thing with my group Black Earth. When you have a big group like that, you really are more focused as a composer than as an improvising musician. And Avreeayl and I had worked together for several years, because he played in Black Earth, and he was a mentor of mine before he started playing in my group. Ed and Avreeayl have both been great mentors for me. Harrison was just someone who had had a long relationship with Ed—and when we were putting the group together, Ed wouldn't consider having anyone but Harrison.

Who, of course, was a fantastic choice, because Harrison, to me, is one of the greatest bass players of this time. His improvisation, especially free improvisation, is his greatest strength. It's really the greatest strength of both Avreeayl and Harrison—playing creative music. They can do other things; they can play straight-ahead, they can play the other aspects of the tradition. But when they're playing creative, that's when they're really doing what's in their heart.

So we've had a great friendship over the years, all of us, individually and collectively. We just have a lot of fun together, so the music comes easily. Especially for them—they've known each other for much longer than then I've known them, of course, since they're from a different generation than I'm from. But they've always been super-supportive, and they've always had a great belief in me, which really helps me in my own development. So I really enjoy the group and they really enjoy the group.

It's like an oasis for us when we can play together, and I'm glad we finally got ourselves together enough to make the CD! Because, you know, we're so busy. And that's just the story of this music during this time—people have so many different projects and it's hard to just schedule the time together and go ahead and record. I'm glad we got a chance to do that. Hopefully, there will be more recordings to follow. I'm glad we've had such a positive response.

AAJ:: Well, people are always going to respond to a recording as good is that one, I think. When was the recording made? Was it recorded last year?

NM:: Yeah, we did it last year. We really took our time with it; we did a lot of improv in the studio and chose the best stuff—the stuff that we liked the best. And when we play, even though we have this bag of songs that we've shared with each other, a lot of times it's more likely that we're just going to improvise most of it. Because that's kind of the angle of the band; it's what we do together.

AAJ:: You answered one of my questions. I was going to ask if you recorded a lot of improvs and then chose the best ones for the record. I guess you did.

NM:: [Laughing] Yeah. And some of the other material could definitely have been used, but you can't fit everything on there. You don't want to overwhelm people with too much stuff. You want to make a statement and say that's enough—leave it at that.

AAJ:: Do you think the group's sound has changed since you started playing together, or, for that matter, since you made the record?

NM:: Well, I know that I've grown a lot. I know that when I first started with the group, it was one of the first regular opportunities for me to develop with free improvisation. I mean, I had done a lot of stuff like that, but we had a weekly gig at the HotHouse for almost two years. So that was a great time for us to develop. During that time period, we did have different drummers; Avreeayl wasn't the first drummer. We had Vincent Davis for a while, and he wasn't even the first, and finally we had Avreeayl, and he was super-excited to be a part of it. And that's important—he really wanted to do it, and for the other drummers, it was just a gig. So when Avreeayl came in, that really finalized the connection with everyone. Because I had a history with Avreeayl, and Ed had his own history with Harrison. It worked out really well.

AAJ:: Let's talk about some of the pieces on the recording. "Take Refuge is one of your compositions, and this is one that I find myself coming back to again and again. In a way, it's among the more traditionally jazz-ish of the pieces, just because it has that theme book-ending the solo sections. What I love here is the contrast of that airy unison tenor/flute theme and the incredibly restless, dense playing of Avreeayl and Harrison—like air and earth.

NM:: That song is pretty old. I was trying to record that tune for a long time. And when I gave it to Frequency, that was where it fit. Originally, it was a Black Earth tune. But I never recorded it with Black Earth, and when I brought it to Frequency, it kind of became almost like a theme song for the group. It just fit really well—the spirit of it really fit, because the idea is for Harrison on bass not to be trying to accommodate and comp behind the melody, but to really be free and be percussive. And it's the same with the drums, so it really worked well with them specifically to play that tune.

I think it's funny, too, because the meaning of the title "Take Refuge originally meant that we take refuge in this music. But at the same time, it's such a wild song that some people might think that they have to take refuge from it [laughing].

AAJ:: Yes, it's a warning. They need to put on their raincoats.

NM:: Yeah! It means both things, so you can call that inside and outside.

AAJ:: I really hate to overuse a word like "beautiful, but Harrison's piece "Portrait of Light is, well, beautiful.

NM:: Yeah. What else can you call it? It really reflects his own serenity as a person. That's Harrison. He's a very peaceful guy.

AAJ:: Tell me about Avreeayl's tune "Satya. It's the long one on the CD. It's just such a wonderful expression of what this group does, and a lot of it seems very improvised—in fact I think the whole first half is an improv.

NM:: It's more conceptual, yes. It's more conceptual than melodic. He wanted it to start with a storm, and then for the storm to clear. Then he had this melody, and it is very beautiful. That song makes me want to cry sometimes. It's definitely a love song. One thing I want to say is that simplicity and unison of a very simple melody—there's something very human about that. That's what I love about being a creative musician and being able to embrace those old traditions, the folk traditions as well as dealing with these complex ideas, and being able to appreciate those things. Because some people rebel against that—they rebel against simplicity, and especially unison: "Unison? What's the point of that? But there's something that touches you about that; it's powerful.

AAJ:: Well, maybe some musicians don't want to do something that they learned how to do a long time ago. It's not hard enough.

NM:: Yeah. But I think we all agree that part of what we're trying to do is to bring healing, and that comes out in a lot of the music. There end up being a lot of pieces that are, like you said, "peaceful.


Indigo Trio

AAJ:: Let's talk about Indigo Trio, which consists of you, Harrison Bankhead again, and Hamid Drake. You've played with Hamid for years in your Black Earth Ensemble, and he and Harrison have a very long musical history together. Your brand-new record on the Greenleaf label is Live in Montreal, a recording of the group's first-ever performance as a trio from June of 2005. You've played with Hamid for years in your Black Earth Ensemble.

NM:: Well, not only that. I want to add that Hamid is like a big brother to me. He's really been one of my greatest supporters from the beginning. From the beginning, he always said to me, "What does Nicole Mitchell's music sound like? Even before I'd even started a group, or anything like that. We started a group together way before Black Earth that was called Soundscape, with Glenda Zahra Baker—she's a vocalist. The three of us played a lot; this was when Hamid was still kind of around. You know, you never see him in Chicago now, but he was around more back then. We did some performances, played around. We never did a recording, and we never really did a tour with the group, but it definitely had an impact on all three of us.

"I think we all agree that part of what we're trying to do is to bring healing, and that comes out in a lot of the music.

So when I started Black Earth, I kind of made a joke to Hamid: "Hey, you want to come play drums tonight? What was funny was that all the times I'd known him and seen him perform, I'd never even seen him on the traps. He would only play, like, tablas and hand drums. And when I brought him into Black Earth, we were mostly playing smaller percussion. He wasn't even bringing his traps. We didn't start playing together in that aspect until much later.

But he's a great friend, and he's been a real big brother to me. Hamid's always encouraged me, looked out for me, and told other people about me. And he performs everywhere, so I know a lot of opportunities I got starting out came from him telling people about me who then checked out my music. I know he was connected to the beginnings of my touring throughout Europe, because he's doing those festivals all the time. So it was a lot of fun to come together. He was like, "Okay, we're going to do a trio gig—who do you want to play bass? I said, "I want the best! I want Harrison! So that performance on that CD is actually the first performance we had together, and it was mostly improvised, but in a completely different way from Frequency.

AAJ:: How is it different?

NM:: I would say that we tend to improvise in a way that's not as abstract. We tend to celebrate all the aspects of black music in our improvisations. With Frequency, we'll go a little bit more abstract, but in this group, we're a little more rooted. Which is a lot of fun. I really want to do it all.

AAJ:: Well, I've only had the CD for a day, so I can't act too smart, but "Velvet Lounge, improvisation or not, is a song. It's just a song that didn't exist before you played it, but I immediately felt like I knew it.

NM:: Right, exactly. It's a lot of fun. And for me, it's really limitless. Hamid's studied and explored so many styles, and they're all so interconnected, so any minute we can go anywhere. There's a lot of freedom in terms of that.

AAJ:: Has this group done many performances since you did that show that's documented on the CD?

NM:: We actually did a whole string of performances right after we did that show. It was funny, because it was a tour, but it wasn't a tour because it wasn't as if it was planned that way. It just happened that way, that we went from Montreal to New York to Maine. It's challenging to get together, because of all our schedules, and all our projects. But we actually have some music planned for this summer. We're going to be playing the Vancouver Festival and we're hooking up a tour to connect to that.

AAJ:: I noticed that of the songs that are pre-composed on the CD, you played "Afrika Rising, which is a suite from the Black Earth Ensemble of the same name from 2002. It sounds great, and of course it's completely different to do the material with three players.

NM:: Yeah, instead of, like, fourteen.

AAJ:: But are you playing all three parts of the suite? I don't think I hear that.

NM:: We're actually just playing the first movement. Somehow the first movement got renamed "Afrika Rising, because it gets played a lot more than the other two movements. So people now know that first movement as "Afrika Rising, but the real title is actually "The Ancient Power Awakens. But it's just the first movement.

AAJ:: This group mostly improvises, but when you do play a composed piece, is it only yours? Or does everyone compose?

NM:: So far, it's been mine. But we would like to spend more time so that everyone can contribute. That's really the goal. And it's important. You know, I have Black Earth, so I have my space to just run stuff. I have that space for my composition and my concept. Then I like to be in other spaces where I can collaborate with people, especially people that I really admire, people who are doing things musically I really admire. So I really want to encourage Hamid and Harrison to bring tunes. The group is definitely a collective. So much of what we do is improv, so we're really essentially composing together.

I am hoping we can do a lot of stuff. I think we could do a lot of work together, because it's easy, it's transportable. For me, it's really an opportunity to showcase my flute playing, because when I play with Black Earth, which is such a big group, I want to focus on the composition. So here, I have a lot of freedom. I mean, the Indigo Trio CD has a lot more flute on it [laughing].

AAJ:: Sure. There's a lot more room for flute.

NM:: Exactly. So it allows me to express, and I really enjoy that.


Black Earth Ensemble

AAJ:: I think we should talk about the group you lead, Black Earth. I think this is still the group for which you're best known. It performs your compositions and has a somewhat varying personnel, partly due to its size.

NM:: Well, it's partly me, too. I get these ideas about instrumentation, I change my mind. I always have made it clear to people that it's not a fixed group. I want to be able to be flexible. So in relation to what date we get to play, where we have to go, people's schedules, and me as a composer having different ideas—I needed it to be flexible.

And so we have a big family; that's how we look at it. We've got something like thirty musicians within the Black Earth family that play at different times, and I think it's worked for us. I try to make sure everybody gets a chance when we have the bigger gigs, and it's fun to have that element of surprise. The audience never knows exactly who's going to be playing in the group.

Then, with different projects, I mix things up. For example, we had a concert in Rome last spring where I featured two vocalists, Dee Alexander and Ugochi [Nwaogwugwu]. Now, Dee Alexander is pretty well-known in Chicago, and hopefully, elsewhere. She's a great jazz vocalist. And Ugochi is coming from another place—she's more of a neo-soul vocalist and she's got a great ear and a great tone quality. So I was really excited to choose her. She creates her own music, and it's really great, but it's not necessarily from the jazz background.

So this music is very influenced by R&B and the blues—it's coming from a whole other place. So I'm really excited to get this new record out. My goal is to get it out this year.

AAJ: Tell me more about the music you've written for it. NM: It's more influenced by R&B, and the blues—even hip-hop. And it's all interweaved into the music. In addition to that, I presented a program of music in Poznan, Poland. I called this group the Harambee Project, which also hasn't been recorded yet. We did present the music in November, and this was something like a fourteen-piece group. "Harambee is a Swahili word meaning "to pull together and it was a connection between musicians—some from the AACM, some who had worked with Black Earth previously, and Tatsu Aoki, who is a Japanese jazz musician who lives in Chicago.

AAJ: Oh, yes, the bassist.

NM: Yes. So he worked with us. We also had taiko drummers, so it was a completely different concept from what we had done previously with Black Earth. That's why I gave it a different name. That also included Harrison, Mwata Bowden on baritone sax, [saxman] David Boykin, [trumpeter] Corey Wilkes, Dee Alexander, Justin Dillard on piano and Avreeayl on drums. I hope I'm not leaving anyone out.

So there's that project. And then I have a whole other project going to the Vision Festival this year. It's a Black Earth concert, but I'm writing new music because I got a commission from Chamber Music America to create a suite of pieces inspired from the African-American science fiction novelist Octavia Butler. So I'm working on that now. So it's a challenge to get all this music out. Because, you know, Black Earth has only been released on Dreamtime, which is my label—mine and David Boykin's label. So we're getting ready to put out the next Black Earth CD, but I'm hoping in the future that people can recognize the value of Black Earth—and maybe give me some help here! It's challenging.

AAJ: Maybe the Greenleaf guys could do something.

NM: The magic of Greenleaf is that they only sell online. And the Paperback series features live concerts.

AAJ: Which are relatively inexpensive to record.

NM: Exactly. class="f-right">

As Yet Unreleased Material: Nicole Mitchell Trio and Solo Work

AAJ: I think there's another project you haven't mentioned. Didn't you record a live record at the Vision Fest in June with the Nicole Mitchell Trio, which is yourself, bassist Josh Abrams and drummer Myron Cherry?

NM: I did, but it hasn't come out. How did you know about that? It's actually ready to go, but I hadn't really decided if I was going to put it out myself, or get somebody else to put it out. And I didn't want it to compete with the Indigo Trio. I was thinking about having it come in June, around the time of the Vision Fest. That would give enough space for Greenleaf to put out Indigo Trio.

AAJ: Do you have a solo record recorded that also isn't out yet?

NM: I do, yes. The solo record was recorded in Maine. I did a residency at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in the summer of 2005. I was there for two weeks as a visiting artist, which was really fantastic. They gave me this wonderful space to do my work in, and I did music with all these visual artists. During the residency, I recorded the solo CD in the forest and at the ocean. So it's all outdoors, with the sounds of nature. It's mostly my flute and a few other things as well. I'm really excited about it. I just get so busy sometimes that it takes a while for everything to come out. But it's definitely ready to come out; I edited it last summer. It's ready to go.

AAJ: What's it called?

NM: Duo With Deer Island. One thing I've been doing in the last year or so is these residencies, just sharing my music as a composer with musicians and having them play the music. That's something a little different from playing festivals with your group. It's a different experience, and I'm going off to Paris to do that.

AAJ: Tell me about working with composer/cornetist Rob Mazurek in his large-ensemble group the Exploding Star Orchestra. The album's called We Are All From Somewhere Else, and came out in early 2007 on the Thrill Jockey label. The personnel of the band has varied from the very-large group I saw debut at Millennium Park in 2005 to the smaller band that I saw play at the Dank Haus in 2006. Rob's compositions are wonderful.

NM: I think Rob is a visionary. I really feel like he's got the visual art, his sound, electronic music, and what he's done with the Chicago Underground, and he's got all these other projects as well. It was really a lot of fun to get the opportunity to collaborate with him and to play his music. I like his music, and to me, it's very connected to the spirit of the AACM, so it wasn't really that different or foreign to me. I think our aesthetics connect. So it worked really well.

It's a big group! I think it's probably the loudest group I've ever played in, with two drum sets and everything. That's pretty loud for a flutist, but I don't seem to have any problem with playing in loud settings [laughing]. Hey, I can't believe you never asked me the "woman question. That's good. I appreciate that. You know, "How is it to be a woman bandleader?

AAJ: Oh, well, I assume it's hard. It never occurred to me to ask. It's like, "What is it like to be a human being bandleader?

NM: Exactly. It's the same for everybody.



AAJ: I do want to ask you about your work in the AACM—the Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians. The musicians affiliated with the AACM such as Muhal Richard Abrams, Fred Anderson, Lester Bowie, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and now you—leaving out dozens of really important AACM artists—are what people have thought of when they think of Chicago improvised music, and the organization's goals of supporting music and art of African ancestry—and supporting artists and musicians—are as important as ever. You're a co-president of the AACM, so tell me where you think the AACM is and how it's still important.

NM: I think AACM is in a great place right now. We have two chapters—the Chicago chapter and the New York chapter. And a lot of our founders did migrate to New York, but I'm proud to say that the Chicago chapter's really held its own and has been able to foster younger musicians and really turn them on to creative music. Like, for example, Corey Wilkes. Of course, I was very influenced, and there are new people coming up like cellist Tomeka Reid, violinist Savoir Faire and pianist Justin Dillard. So there are always these new musicians coming up that are attracted to this organization, and then you have this sharing of the generations. So on that level, I really feel it's as strong as ever. As long as you have that connection, that multi-generational connection happening—that brings a real beauty to any group of people and what you're trying to do.

We have lots of goals. I think of that coined term, "power is stronger than itself, that has been associated with the AACM. We feel that, because there is so much that we can do. We try to do things, and there is so much more you haven't even tried to do yet! It's kind of like that still; even though it's forty years old now, there is so much more that can be done. For example, finding ways of having group health care as a lot of the membership is aging—these challenges come up for musicians in general.

It's a real sacrifice to be a musician, and with their love for what they do, some people really sacrifice the quality of life for that, and they're not really appreciated to the point where they're rewarded for that sacrifice. For example, William Perry just passed. He's a saxophonist from Chicago and hardly anyone even knows his name. But he was a great saxophonist and he never really got a lot of props or acknowledgement for his work—but everyone here knows who he was. There are so many musicians like that all over the place, and how do we find a way to really cherish them and have them still appreciated?

The AACM school has been the real root of the AACM—the teaching aspect. It's important to give young people the chance to learn instruments, first of all, because in a lot of communities in Chicago, there is no arts program in the public schools at all. So to be able to provide something to fill that void is filling a big gap right there, and it would take a lot of money to completely fill it. But we try to do what we can. And we try to build new partnerships.

For example, we established a new partnership with the Sons d'Hiver Festival in Paris, and that's part of the reason I'm going to Paris. We've established one night of AACM concerts within the festival. Last year, we had a Roscoe Mitchell and Matana Robertson duet and 8 Bold Souls. This year, we have Muhal Richard Abrams doing a solo set and the Ari Brown Quintet. So I hope to do the programming for the concerts, and to nurture the partnership so we can continue in that direction. But that's another interview in itself, talking about the AACM!

Selected Discography

Indigo Trio, Live in Montreal (Greenleaf, 2007)
Exploding Star Orchestra, We Are All From Somewhere Else (Thrill Jockey, 2007)
Frequency, Frequency (Thrill Jockey, 2006)
Mike Reed, In the Context of (482 Music, 2006)
NOMO, New Tones (Ubiquity, 2006)
Nicole Mitchell/Black Earth Ensemble, Hope, Future and Destiny (Dreamtime, 2004)
Hamid Drake & Bindu, Bindu (Rogue Art, 2004)
Nicole Mitchell/Black Earth Ensemble, Afrika Rising (Dreamtime, 2002)
Nicole Mitchell/Black Earth Ensemble, Vision Quest (Dreamtime, 2001)
David Boykin Expanse, 47th Street Ghost (Dreamtime, 2001)
David Boykin Outet, Evidence of Life on Other Planets, Vol. 2 (Box Media, 1998)
David Boykin Outet, Evidence of Life on Other Planets, Vol. 1 (Thrill Jockey, 1998)

Photo Credit
Frank Rubolino

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