Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Flute Madness

A week or so ago I named Anat Cohen as my personal pick for the should-be winner of the Downbeat Critics' Poll rising star composer category; after having heard "Black Unstoppable" and "Xenogenesis Suite," Nicole Mitchell's two most recent albums, I've changed my mind. Like Vijay Iyer, the perennial winner, Mitchell's compositions grapple with the idea of total freedom versus through-composed standard fare, and come out somewhere between the two. Mitchell is often confused for a full-on free jazz musician, and after hearing her odd sounds on "Xenogenesis Suite" I can understand this impulse. That said, however, for every freak-out on either album, there is another tune that approaches funk, or falls somewhere completely uncharted in the jazz world.

"Black Unstoppable," the more straight-ahead of Mitchell's two most recent albums, still finds ample time to devote to her crazier side. The title track, "Black Unstoppable," is also the most out there, containing some odd extended technique-work from Mitchell herself. The best tracks, however, are the ones in which guitar-player Jeff Parker gets to show off. Luckily, however, that describes about half of the album. Parker is turning into something of a Chicago Nels Cline (or perhaps Nels Cline is a west-coast Jeff Parker), playing as a sideman on a random smattering of brilliant free jazz coming out of Chicago (Matana Roberts' "The Chicago Project," for example) and working with a rock band (the great instrumental post-rock group Tortoise). Of course the biggest star on the album is Mitchell's compositional ability; moving from the up-tempo funk opener "Cause and Effect" to vocal blues work-outs like "Love Has No Boundaries" and "Thanking the Universe" to crazy jams like "Navigator." Highly recommended for those who want to get into Mitchell's music.

"Xenogenesis Suite," although more than a little bit avant garde, will serve as a treat for anyone who loves free jazz or Mitchell's body of work. Based on a novel by science fiction author Octavia Butler, the suite sounds almost totally free upon first listen. After a few listens, however, it becomes apparent that Mitchell not only knows what she is doing, but is just as interested in creating a work that stands up track-by-track as she is in creating free music. While there are clearly sections that employ group improvisation as a device, these sections are clearly cued in some sense; even the clearly composed movements- "Before and After" and "Dawn of a New Life-" have a sense of free abandon to them. Recommended for those who love free jazz or Nicole Mitchell, or both.

I would like to apologize for the consistent lateness of this blog (I used to try and write every two days, now it's turning into more like every three or so); I recently started writing a column for the Scarsdale Inquirer and for the past day I've been swamped (I was planning on writing this yesterday but was hit with a deadline). In all honesty, I'm living day to day and have no idea what my next post will be about... maybe Marc Ribot and Ceramic Dog? Perhaps "What To Do Past the Days of Artistic Relevance," the new album from Wynton N' Willie? I have no idea. Check back in 2-3 days.

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