Black Unstoppable
Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble | Black Unstoppable
Live at The Velvet Lounge

Delmark DVD 1575 • www.delmark.com

Everything's friendly and relaxed and very intelligent in this live DVD of the unstoppable Nicole Mitchell group, Black Earth Ensemble, at The Velvet Lounge in Chicago.

The steady shots of the band, then the crowd, then a slow pan of the club itself, then back to the soloist and the band. The overall shot selections and editing do a good job of documenting these creative musicians and their sounds and their surrounds on this particular night.

There's zoom shots that let us see the fingering of, let's say, guitarist Jeff Parker when he's contributing his electric storm solo to the title tune, "Black Unstoppable".

Or Nicole Mitchell's flute that produces a line of fresh breath sounds parallel to her simultaneous humming on "The Creator Has Other Plans for Me"; it's all simply and effectively caught.

By the way, Nicole Mitchell sure can play (and so can the band.)

But instead of putting all her talent into becoming a sleek virtuoso player, Mitchell has focused on the composing and playing of music — especially in the case of the Black Earth Ensemble — that is more about personal sound and community — and is woman-driven, co-ed, African-American positive, and multi-generational.

"I like it more rough and ready," says Mitchell.

In "Life Wants You to Love", Mitchell's concern for her own 13-year old, quickly growing up daughter, is directly addressed by the thrusting lead vocalist Ugochi. "Your body is a woman/ but your mind is still a child." Mitchell sings back-up vocals on her tune. Here, David Boykin solos guttural on tenor and Mitchell's wood piccolo is by turns very together, breathy, and piping. The song makes you cry.

In "Cause and Effect", with its primed and hard-boppish riff (played by a deep tenor/trumpet/bowed cello), the tune glides into a repeated stroll theme. While David Young's open horn trumpet solo is an inventive mix of modern and 'out' notes blended with smooth legato runs it's typically Mitchell's l-o-n-g flute lines that breathe human life back into the changing moods and tempos of the composition as it resolved into a bluesy guitar solo — an insistent solo, that looked forward, and questioned, and was built upon knowledge and musical feel.

In the title piece, "Black Unstoppable", craft in the service of feeling is the animating spark in this Mingus-like theme. When its 4 cycling brass riffs stop, and Josh Abram's bass is revealed, burning pizzicato at the core, the horns then rub tones against the bass. So Parker's subsequent guitar solo is stormy, and Mitchell's alto flute starts moving through a series of tonal manipulations. Sounding like a shakuhachi (a Japanese bamboo flute played vertically like a saxophone or a clarinet), Mitchell's flute sustains and bends and flutter-tongues various breath accents upon the implied flow. Appropriately, David Young employs circular breathing technique to power the continuous tones of his trumpet and make it play at one point into a full-out non-stop-styled speaking role. The whole piece ends in a free ensemble of voices.

Throughout the evening, Tomeka Reid was determined and inventive on cello, whether she was playing ensemble or soloing. Meanwhile, drummer Marcus Evans quietly and tastefully went about his role as a supportive player and a good reactive player.

The busy flutist/composer/educator and co-president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Nicole Mitchell, has heavy credentials because she's there, doing the heavy lifting, enjoying herself, making a sizeable contribution and, in a jazz setting such as The Velvet Lounge, sharing her sonic and verbalized thoughts on sound and community.

And to think — Nicole Mitchell is, after all, an avant-garde musician. Who's just shown us that everything's there for us — in music as in life.

Mitchell seems to suggest that people must make choices. What do you really want? What do you want to do in life?

Having viewed this DVD, I'd have to say that Nicole Mitchell has evolved beautifully into her own conclusions.

And she's continually working at it.

"Individuality and originality are philosophies at the root of jazz that I embrace, along with the concept of swing and syncopation. I embrace these essentials of the tradition, and I honor historical periods of the music through my compositions. There is so much to learn from in all the historical periods of jazz but I am also very interested in music of the world. I have a Master's degree in classical flute performance, and I enjoy music from Cuba, Mali, Nigeria, South Africa, the list goes on." (Nicole Mitchell)

by David Fujino April 2008

The tracks
1. The Creator Has Other Plans for Me [10:11]
2. Life Wants You to Love [12:18]
3. Cause and Effect [11:52]
4. Love Has No Boundaries [14:03]
5. Black Unstoppable [12:15]
6. February [7:12]
7. Thanking the Universe [10:19]
The musicians
Nicole Mitchell — flute, alto flute, piccolo
David Boykin — tenor saxophone, percussion
David Young — trumpet, flugelhorn
Jeff Parker — guitar
Tomeka Reid — cello, shakere
Josh Abrams — bass
Marcus Evans — drums
Ugochi Nwaogwugwu — vocals (2, 4, 7)
We welcome your comments and feedback
David Fujino
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