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Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Strings: Renegades

Nic Jones By

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Here's where Nicole Mitchell's art comes together. Whereas her previous releases could have been marked by the perhaps inevitable signs of individuality coming into being, here the overall coherence of the music is extraordinary, aided in no small part by her choice of cohorts and their evidently strong commitment to group identity and singular music possessed of infinite variety and shades. In short, both Mitchell and the Black Earth Strings have come of age.

The knowledge of it starts from the bottom up, so to speak. Drummer and percussionist Shirazette Tinnin is a player after the nature of Famoudou Don Moye in the sense that she gives of herself in the service of a group aesthetic even while she retains a depth of identity. It's obvious on "Waterdance," where she imparts momentum into proceedings which might otherwise drift, whilst the fatback funk of "What If" is a denial of the musical forces disposed in the best sense. Mitchell negotiates the odd intervals with aplomb whilst Tinnin and bassist Josh Abrams lay it down.

This is an ensemble that can do reflective too. "Waris Dirie" is lyrical yet disturbed, as indicative as anything here of the anxiety that's been a mark of Mitchell's previous music on record, before it settles down to become something else. The momentum of the piece is fundamentally at odds with what happens melodically but the resulting tension, destined to remain tantalizingly unresolved, is abundantly rewarding.

"Wade" is an exercise in avoiding the potentially tiresome aspects of working with strings, although its formalism is at odds with a lot of what's going on here. Tomeka Reid's cello is both dark and ambiguous until the music finds its feet in a manner that's a celebration of spontaneous form. When they come together Reid and violinist/violist Renee Baker do so with celebration in mind anyway, and their joint efforts sing loud.

Whilst there's nothing inherently wrong with Mitchell's vocal on "By My Own Grace," it does have the effect of breaking the spell created by the music that precedes it as the level of non-verbal communication imparted is exciting and stimulating enough. This might seem like a churlish criticism but in view of the fact that this is an ensemble that plays together for all the right reasons it seems worthwhile making it. As it is it takes nothing away from a body of music that proclaims its individuality from the rooftops, and the fact that it does this with such fervor only goes to show that when the right hands come along improvised music has more than a beautiful past in front of it.


Track Listing: Crossroads; No Matter What; Ice; Windance; Renegades; Be My Own Grace; What If; Symbology #2A; Wade; Waterdance; Symbology #1; Mama Found Out; If I Could Have You The Way I Want You; Symbology #2; Waris Dirie; Aaya's Rainbow.

Personnel: Nicole Mitchell: flute, alto flute, piccolo, vocals; Renee Baker: violin, viola; Tomeka Reid: cello; Josh Abrams: bass, gimbre; Shirazette Tinnin: drums, percussion.

Title: Renegades | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Delmark Records

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