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Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble: Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler

John Sharpe By

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Expectations must have been confounded in the premiere of flutist Nicole Mitchell's Xenogenesis Suite at the 2007 Vision Festival. Presented here in a crisply recorded version from the Firehouse 12 studio the previous day, the suite is a far cry from her previous Festival appearance with a freewheeling trio in 2005, and very different again from her recent well-received Black Unstoppable (Delmark, 2007) release. The focus this time out is on Mitchell the composer, whose intentions are manifest through some intense group readings of her charts. The nearest reference point is the ensemble works of fellow AACM spirit Muhal Richard Abrams, not so much in terms of style, but more definitely in terms of scope.

This extended work was inspired by the theme of fear in science fiction writer Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, more as an emotional reaction, rather than a specific storyline. Mitchell explains in the liners: "the process of writing this music allowed me to face the feeling of fear head on—to enter it and explore it." The unusual back story has drawn Mitchell to new ways of working with an unsettling tonal palette full of clashing sounds, stark juxtapositions and overlapping lines, moving gradually towards resolution over the course of the set. In the middle of all this sits the largely wordless emoting of Mankewe Ndosi tapping directly into the psyche through a litany of human sounds. How you react to this vocal tour de force is likely to likely to determine your reaction to this disc. Even though the voice is mixed down alongside the other instruments, it remains at the heart of the piece. Initially off-putting, I was able to accept it as part of the overall rich sonic tapestry after a couple of listens.

While there are few solo features in the involved group readings, there are nonetheless passages where members of Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble shine: a stretch of free piano from Dillard in "Wonder"; squealing, gobbling, gurgling tenor saxophone from Boykins in "Transition C"; and a spell of piercing, growling flute with vocalised overtones from Mitchell in the same piece, are a few that spring to mind.

Taken as a whole this is an intriguing set, moving outside the comfort zone, but ultimately paying back repeated listens, and a splendid lesson on the merits of sometimes confounding expectations.


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; Mankwe Ndosi: voice; David Young: trumpet; David Boykin: tenor saxophone; Tomeka Reid: cello; Justin Dillard: piano; Josh Abrams: bass; Marcus Evans: drums; Avreeayl Ra: percussion.

Title: Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Firehouse 12 Records

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