The performance I was able to attend was by Nicole Mitchell and the Black Earth Ensemble. Flutist, composer, bandleader and educator Mitchell presented the world premiere of her composition Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler, a work commissioned by Chamber Music America. In recognition of Ms. Mitchell's flute-playing skills, she was charted the #1 ‘Rising Star' flutist in Downbeat Magazine's 2006 Critic's Poll. However, this evening's event focused more on Ms. Mitchell's compositional skills and her ensemble's performance abilities than on her talent as a flutist. The suite is inspired by the Xenogenesis Trilogy by noted science fiction author Octavia Butler, author of Kindred, Fledgling, Mind of my Mind, etc. According to Mitchell, the Trilogy, which consists of the novels Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago, and the suite it has inspired, highlights a journey into otherworldly experiences, for example, Dawn, where the extraterrestrial Oankali rescues the earth from the destruction of nuclear war." The festival's program notes add that through music, Mitchell evokes an emotional journey into the horrific, yet fascinating unknown. For this evening's performance, however, knowledge of the literary specifics were not required in order to appreciate the rhythmic and harmonic complexity, as well as the melodic nuance present throughout the various movements of the extended work.
The members of Mitchell's group the Black Earth Ensemble: David Boykin, tenor saxophone; Tomeka Summers Reid, cello; David Young, trumpet; Justin Dillard, piano; Josh Abrams, bass; Mankwe Ndosi, vocals; Arveeayl Ra, percussion and Marcus Evans, drumset; are a collection of some of today's finest young (and not so young) creative music artists. In each of the nine movements, [1.) Wonder; 2.) Transition A; 3.) Smell of Fear; 4.) Sequence Shadows, 5.) Oankali; 6.) Adrendalin; 7.) Transition C; 8.) Before and After; 9.) Transition B (Dawn of a New Life)], the improvisational prowess of one (or more) of the artists was featured.
On this evening, all of the soloists were in fine voice, with Mitchell, Reid, Boykin and Young being particularly expressive. Mitchell's work has always been profoundly influenced by the Chicgo-based AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians http://aacmchicago.org/mast2.html) of which she is a prominent member, and this was certainly in evidence this evening. Thus the overall effect of this group's presentation was reminiscent of some of the best work of Sun Ra, The Art Ensemble of Chicago or Horace Tapscott and the Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra. One possible shortcoming of this particular performance, however, was the feeling that, with soloists of this caliber, Mitchell let compositional considerations take precedence over providing ample solo space for all involved. I believe that the opportunity for improvisation, both individual and collective, was sacrificed for the sake of the composition's flow. I wanted to hear everyone blow more, particularly improvisers as creative as both Mitchell and Boykin are in this context. In spite of this, however, this was a powerful performance of a striking composition.
Nicole Mitchell's three nationally released recordings Vision Quest, Afrika Rising, and Hope, Future & Destiny all feature, in this writer's opinion, overt references to style features, performance practice, and musical material directly inspired by various African sources. That direct influence is not nearly so evident in this work. Ra, the percussionist, functioned more as a colorist than a propulsive timekeeper, even when he focused solely on playing his drums made entirely of wood.
This presentation, Mitchell's first at the Vision Festival, was a vivid reminder that she is only beginning to reveal the wide range of musical abilities at her command. With performances like this one from Mitchell (and the continuation of festivals like Vision Festival XII), the future of the music in general, even with the recent passage of a great pioneer artist like violinist Leroy Jenkins, seems secure.
Nicole Mitchell's website is at: nicolemitchell.com
Vision Festival' website is at: www.visionfestival.org