Music

Nicole Mitchell Creates a Gracious Blend of Improvisation and Structure on 'Maroon Cloud'

Photo courtesy of the artist

Jazz composer and flute virtuoso Nicole Mitchell has assembled a new quartet that makes beautiful but daring music with great transparency.

Maroon Cloud
Nicole Mitchell

FPE

10 August 2018

Composer and improviser Nicole Mitchell plays the flute, an instrument that can struggle to seem powerful in a world of tenor saxophones and trumpets. But in her art, she wields not just her instrument but also a sense of musical arrangement and context. Mitchell creates musical landscapes and environments. She creates sounds beyond the notes she plays.

In 2017, Mitchell came in high on many critics' "best of" lists with the latest from her Black Earth Ensemble, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds. It's crazy to call this disc any kind of a coming out party for Mitchell, as her discography and resume are long and impressive. Among other things, she was the first female president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, with a Chicago pedigree of progressive improvised music that is not kidding around.

Maroon Cloud uses a new ensemble that features both an old associate of Mitchell's—cellist Tomeka Reid—and two fixtures of the New York scene in vocalist Fay Victor and pianist Aruan Ortiz. It is an intimate and astonishing collection of music created for (and recorded live at) John Zorn's Stone Commissioning Series. The absence of a drummer or bass player, perhaps, adds an open feeling to this band, but it is this transparency in the music that makes a potentially "out there" session into something inviting.

The first wonderful thing about Maroon Cloud is very simply this: each musician has a gorgeous touch and tone. Perhaps we should be long past the time when more adventurous, "avant-garde" music is assumed to be either ugly to listen to or made by musicians who tend to avoid sounding sweet in any way, but the impression persists. Mitchell's sound on flute steers fully clear of this stereotype. She plays with a sumptuous, expressive tone that can move from breathy to full without ever seeming ragged. Unless she wants it to. Hearing her bend tones on the opener, "Warm Dark Realness", is a marvel. She moves from half-step to half-step with a sensual grace, gliding between notes with liquid ease.

Reid's work on cello has a similar elegance. The cello is a famously full-toned member of the string family, but jazz players can get caught in the middle ground: it's not the pizzicato time-keeper that the bass is, nor is it usually used to play lead melodies like the violin. Reid sounds strong and comfortable at both ends and in the middle—she keeps time like a bass player on "Vodou Spacetime Kettle", for example, dispensing with her bow, but she is both a sure-toned ensemble member and melodist on "Otherness". When Reid and Mitchell play unison passages, their intonations and timbres are gorgeously one.

Ortiz's role with this band is that of a connector and colorist, and to some extent as its only percussionist. His pianistic approach is lush and beautiful on most of the compositions, as he lends dramatic harmonies and textures to the way that the melodic voices intersect. There are rarely "solos" here in the classic jazz sense, but Ortiz is a great accompanist throughout, finding ways to corral the sounds into coherent flows of harmony. He is in every sense a drummer on "No One Can Stop Us", as he joins a ribald dialogue between flute and cello to provide a raggy counter-rhythm that dances and beats out the groove.

Inevitably, singer Fay Victor finds herself in the foreground of some of these compositions. On "Vodou" she provides a spoken word introduction that articulates Mitchell's "Afro-futurist" point of view (connecting singer Bessie Smith to the 21st century) before moving into a series of variations on the phrase "Nobody loves you when you're down and out", a line from a blues standard that Smith made famous in 1929. Here, Victor examples all the virtues of great blues and jazz singers, including soulful swagger, hip attitude, and extemporaneous interpretation. But on other tracks, she is a blended member of the ensemble, singing with a control and precision that demonstrates even further her range and chops. On "Endurance", Victor sings wordless lines in unison with Reid and later harmonies with Mitchell that are both haunting in both expressive and technical perfection. (Is this year the one in which Fay Victor simply becomes the A-list jazz singer across all styles? Wow, she's everywhere and sounding incredible.) In the middle section, she also uses extended techniques to chirp and growl, to flutter and smack. (She's everywhere doing, well, everything.)

For sheer enjoyment, the track here that most assuredly grabs the ears is "A Sound". Mitchell begins it with a dancing flute figure, quickly mimicked by the cello playing with a bow, scraped and drawn. Ortiz quickly locks into this, sounding like a gospel-influenced jazz pianist, channeling the hippest soul-jazz of the 1960s. Victor's vocal is from-the-gut soul singing, including cries and shouts: "Sometimes a sound represents a whole era! Sometimes a sound represents a whole people!" Mitchell solos over the funky groove, and we glory in the truth that these "avant-garde" jazz musicians are locking into territory that usually belongs to more popular artists—which only makes it more delicious when the quartet takes off freely improvising at the end, retaining the joyful bounce though no longer hewing to soul strictures. The audience at Brooklyn's National Sawdust explodes with pleasure at the end. Why not?

There are other, less obvious pleasures on Maroon Cloud that make this a special recording. The most comprehensive and stunning composition may be "Constellation Symphony", which is also very soulful but uses plenty of formal compositional elements in sophisticated ways. At the start, Ortiz's piano and Reid's cello circle around a single motif, playing with it in part as they approach it but never quite landing there completely. Ortiz's left-hand hunts for the lick, but his right-hand flies like Bud Powell. Eventually the improvisation shifts to Victor, by which time flute and cello have begun playing a written line that sounds like something from Bartok perhaps. The lick that piano and cello were looking for? They find it just in time for a wild flute solo, and then all the instruments move into specific written parts as Victor concludes the piece with a partly spoken and partly sung section. It is the longest and most ambitious track of the cycle. And it brings it all together.

The music on Maroon Cloud shines for various reasons, but its greatest strength may be its collective nature. Soloists do not battle or vie for dominance, and neither do the leader's compositions insist that they are the stars. There is a gracious blend of improvisation and structure, of careful orchestration and spontaneity, of density and space. It seems characteristic of Nicole Mitchell's art that she leaves room for all of these elements, spinning like a mobile in balance. Maroon Cloud, with no drummer and an ideal transparency, makes this virtue doubly clear.

Related Articles Around the Web
8


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.