Awakening CD Reviews by Moment's Notice, Jazz Times, AllAboutJazz, Exystence Music Blog and More!

Awakening

Troy Collins, Point of Departure Music Journal, Moment’s Notice, May 2012

Widely regarded as the preeminent flutist of her generation, Nicole Mitchell was awarded both “Top Jazz Flutist” and “#1 Rising Star Flutist” in Downbeat Magazine’s 2010 critics’ poll, as well as “Flutist of the Year” by the Jazz Journalist Association that same year. Despite the acclaim, Mitchell has devoted most of her time to her Black Earth Ensemble, which highlights her abilities as a composer and arranger more than her skills as a soloist. On a smaller scale, the cooperative ensemble Indigo Trio and collective quartet Sonic Projections have presented ample proof of Mitchell’s instrumental prowess in spare avant-garde settings. But neither of the aforementioned projects spotlights her phenomenal technique and singular creativity as readily as Awakening, a stripped-down quartet recording with some of Chicago’s finest improvisers, including guitarist Jeff Parker, bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Avreeayl Ra.

Boasting effervescent melodies, sophisticated harmonies and supple grooves, this engaging studio session presents a far more traditional facet of Mitchell’s artistry than previously documented. In comparison to the leaderless cooperative Indigo Trio, Mitchell’s accessible writing dominates here, using Parker’s unorthodox chord progressions as a harmonic axis on which to base the ensemble’s freewheeling improvisations. As she states in the liner notes, “I think this quartet is moodier, more contemplative in its sound than Indigo, which is bright and resilient.” Stepping into the foreground, Mitchell’s vocalized flute ruminations synchronize with Parker’s shimmering chord voicings, producing otherworldly harmonic overtones; Bankhead’s throbbing bass lines and Ra’s rumbling percussion accents underscore her evocative musings, lending the proceedings an air of mysterious intrigue.

The modal “Center of the Earth” and “Momentum” set the tone of the record with colorful themes and hypnotic ostinatos that subtly recall African traditions. The former spotlights one of Mitchell’s most expressive excursions, as she incorporates a range of throaty growls, fluttery trills and diaphanous cries into her serpentine cadences, pitching her embouchure between timbral extremes with breathtaking dexterity. Providing dynamic contrast, Parker follows her sinuous variations with brief shards of ringmodulated fretwork that defy conventional tonality. The angular “Momentum” follows suit, trading a punchy, tortuous opening for an introspective coda that resounds with sumptuous lyricism.

Balancing austerity with emotional candor, Mitchell waxes romantic on “More Than I Can Say,” a regal epic dedicated to her fiancée, funky on the backbeat-heavy “There” and euphoric on the ebullient swinger “Curly Top,” a sprightly ode to her teenage daughter. Despite the predominance of basic song structures intended as platforms for extended improvisation, Mitchell’s compositional abilities are well represented by the gorgeous through-composed miniature “Snowflakes” and the episodic “Journey on a Thread.” The later runs through a gamut of solo, duo and trio interludes, highlighted by a ghostly aleatoric exchange between Mitchell and Parker that extols the virtues of pure sound. The title track closes the date with a mid-tempo groove subtly inspired by M-Base pioneer Steve Coleman, elevated by a series of impressive harmonic variations from Mitchell – as she does throughout this vibrant set.

Following in the footsteps of iconoclasts like Robert Dick and James Newton, Mitchell expands upon the expressive technical innovations of Rahsaan Roland Kirk with peerless originality. More than any of her previous endeavors, Awakening focuses on Mitchell’s virtuosic interpretive abilities, rightfully earning her the acclaim she has received.

 

Awakening

By Alex Henderson, All About Jazz

When jazz critic Peter Margasak interviewed Nicole Mitchell for the liner notes he wrote for Awakening, she explained: "I wanted to dig back into the old-school jazz a bit and yet still make room to branch out into never-never land." And that is a perfect description of what the Chicago-based flutist/composer does on this 2011 date, which finds her leading a pianoless quartet that employs Jeff Parker on electric guitar, Harris Bankhead on upright bass and Avreeayl Ra on drums and percussion. Presumably, the "old-school jazz" that Mitchell is referring to is post-bop, while "the never-never land" is avant-garde jazz. Of course, avant-garde jazz comes in many different flavors. Avant-garde jazz can be totally outside (whether it is scorching, dense, brutally atonal free jazz or the spaciness of the AACM), or it can be avant-garde jazz with an inside/outside perspective--and Awakening, like previous Mitchell releases, has an inside/outside perspective. The material that Mitchell composed for Awakening is fairly melodic; "There," "Momentum" and the bluesy "F.O.C.," for example, offer appealing post-bop melodies. "Curly Top" even has a somewhat Horace Silver-ish funkiness. So no, this 64-minute CD is not an exercise in atonality; that isn't the scenario at all. But at the same time, Mitchell and her colleagues don't hesitate to venture into outside playing when they feel like it. They don't venture far outside, but they do venture outside--and while Awakening is more inside than outside, the outside element is an attractive part of the equation. Mitchell, it should be noted, has favored different combinations of musicians on different albums; she is quite proficient when it comes to ensemble playing and arranging, but an intimate quartet format serves her equally well on Awakening. And once again, the Chicago resident excels as both a composer and a soloist.

Awakening

By Lloyd Sachs, JazzTimes Oct 2011

Nicole Mitchell’s emergence as the jazz flutist of the moment—and Jeff Parker’s continuing ascension as one of improvisational music’s great young guitarists—is only furthered by their work together on Awakening. Featuring bassist Harrison Bankhead (Mitchell’s Indigo Trio partner) and drummer Avreeayl Ra, it’s an album of bold, earthy-to-ethereal mood shifts delivered with consummate ease. As good as her broadly thematic long-form works with her larger Black Earth Ensemble are, they tend to hem in Mitchell the soloist. Here, floating freely in space, she gets to show off her full-toned intensity in all its shapes and textures, making sharp but sparing use of dark trills, slurred long notes and vocal effects. (On the steadily changing “Turning on a Thread,” her wordless intonations suggest the Donald Byrd choirs of the early ’60s.) The tunes include the pithy opening swinger, “Curly Top,” the gorgeous lament “More Than I Can Say” and the Indian-tinged “Center of the Earth.” In unison and counterpoint, Mitchell and Parker suggest the comfort level of a seasoned dance duo. (Parker, a master of texture and tonality himself, ranges from chiming single-note lines and brisk, soulful chordings to Derek Bailey-like spiked phrases and electronic eruptions.) And while these four AACM veterans had never played as a quartet before, they sound every bit the long running working unit.

Awakening

By David Dacks, Exclaim Magazine, Canada, September 2012

AACM president Nicole Mitchell has been widely celebrated as one of the foremost flautists of current-day jazz, but sometimes her recordings are so jam-packed full of musicians that it's hard to hear her instrument. Not here. Awakening features a lean quartet where she's the only aerophone ― all the better to display the full range of her capabilities. Sparring with her is frequent collaborator Jeff Parker, who vacillates between being a lead and accompanying instrument, often several times within the same song. With other frequent associates (bassist Harrison Bankheand and drummer Avreeayl Ra) providing a muscular rhythm section, Mitchell unleashes some avant flute funk on "Journey on a Thread" and "Center of the Earth," which would blow Herbie Mann away at 20 paces. She trills, sings through the flute and breaks out a range of other extended techniques to soar over then stab at these rhythms. The sense of space on this disc is unlike anything else in Mitchell's catalogue, save Frequency, which coincidentally features both Ra and Bankhead. Still, Parker's utility and wide range of electronic contributions elevate this album beyond that project.

Awakening

Exystence Music Blog, September 3, 2011

Renowned Chicago flautist and composer Nicole Mitchell has embarked on some very ambitious projects in the past, but this quartet recording pares back her group to a small set of colleagues, Jeff Parker on guitar, Harrison Bankhead on bass and Avreeayl Ra on drums. It’s a group of some of Chicago’s most talented improvisers, and the music is adventurous and thoughtful throughout. Nicole Mitchell plays adventurous flute reminiscent of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, using throaty growls and swirling figures plus the wonderful guitar work from Jeff Parker, and a rock solid rhythm section keep things moving briskly forward.”Momentum” is a centerpiece of the recording with swirling flute developing into a vortex of full band collective improvisation featuring great guitar and drums …interacting before for Ra steps put on a fine solo of his own. The group shows their mastery of dynamism as they slow the tempo down for a ruminative flute solo and guitar interlude. “More Than I Can Say” plays off the haunting vibe with spiraling flute and shards of guitar over abstract percussion. The develop a long form improvisation here as well as on “Journey on a Thread” where an introductory duet of guitar and drums is split by a long slow spot anchored by a bass solo before returning to the earlier tempo. There is a sense of mystery and the unexpected that pervades this recording that makes it exciting listening. The sound of flute and subtle electric guitar is an enticing one and the rhythm section is locked in throughout.

Awakening

By Jack Huntley, AllAboutJazz, August 23, 2011

Flautist Nicole Mitchell's generous improvisational abilities are at the musical heart of Awakening. Not only does she move effortlessly from single-note lines and sliding honks to wispy, soft timbres, but she is equally comfortable moving from pure melodic phrasing to more experimental, free content. Coupled with an exceptional trio backing, Mitchell's album crackles with infectious spontaneity. Her music manages to be at once reflectiveand energetic, accessible as well as clever. "Curly Top" kicks of the set in a laidback groove, with splendid give and take between lead flute and guitarist Jeff Parker's fluid comping. In fact, Mitchell and Parker's musical synergy is key to the album's success. Again and again they fortify each other's musical flights with perfect harmonic support, giving the music a wide sonic texture and cleverly making the most of its melodic landscape. Behind them, Harrison Bankhead's bass and Avreeayl Ra's percussion team up to lay down a funky groove, pushing each other along in creative, rhythmic accents. On "F.O.C." and the title track, the quartet also plays with a straight-ahead feel and rides out the melody for all it's worth, weaving loping, angular solos into an established song structure. On other tracks, though, the band breaks more dramatically from straight forms and moves into avant-garde territory. Both "Journey On A Thread" and "Center of The Earth" incorporate progressive musical experimentation while retaining a semblance of melodic structure. And the band is as tight and unified in the experimental modes as they are in the more traditional aspects of the songs. This balancing act results in music both exciting and approachable, and makes Awakening a vibrant musical statement.


Awakening

Nic Jones, AllAboutJazz, January 6, 2012

This is could be called flautist Niicole Mitchell's first blowing date, although the rarefied nature of her music renders the term only loosely applicable. It's true that, in working with a quartet, she's created the right circumstances for music more reflective of the tradition to happen, but the results are no mere reiteration of a fading blueprint—thanks, in no small part, to guitarist Jeff Parker, the catalyst which sparks the revolutionary nature of this program

There are echoes of Eric Dolphy's later music in the brief "Snowflakes," but its brevity sadly ensures that it doesn't evolve much. By contrast, the lengthy "Momentum" amounts to free bop of a singular order. Mitchell's solo is a model of florid restraint, while beneath her the rhythm trio works up a veritable storm without teetering over into incoherence.

The intriguingly odd meter of "Center of the Earth" sets Mitchell up for a dark-hued solo which highlights the evolution of her musicianship. Her breath control is now at a stage where she can go anywhere; couple this with her not being in thrall to her undoubted technique, and she provides one of the best hopes for the future of this music.

So, the blowing date notion notwithstanding, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Mitchell is above such things. There's something innately organic about the likes of Awakening which transcends the idea, making a program that reveals a previously undisclosed aspect of the flautist's artistry. She has such a fine group to aid her in that endeavor that hopefully it will not be too long before they return to the studio.


Awakening

By Ron W., In A Blue Mood Music Blog, October 6, 2011

In the past few years Nicole Mitchell has emerged as a major voice in contemporary music. The poll winning flautist (in 2010 won Downbeat’s Critics Poll as both Rising Star and top instrumentalist in the flute category) has performed in a number of contexts and has established herself as an educator, composer, instrumentalist and band leader. Her new Delmark album, The Awakening, which she notes that decided to put her flute more in the forefront. She has worked previously with each of her collaborators here, bassist Harrison Bankhead, guitarist Jeff Parker, and drummer Avreeayl Ra. However this group played the first time together a few days prior to entering the studio for this recording.

Curly Top, the ebullient opening number is written for her daughter and in addition to her flighty solo, Parker especially turns in some bright playing. The suite-like Journey On a Thread, has a bit more free and abstract tenor with Parker’s opening which is followed by Mitchell painting sounds with her flute. Bankhead’s funky ostinato bass pattern provides the anchor for the mesmerizing Center of the Earth and the strong improvisations by Mitchell and Parker (who himself repeats a riff during Mitchell’s solo with her overblowing and use of overtones). Parker also plays with sounds during his interlude here.

Snowflakes is a lovely and brief, delicately played piece followed by Momentum, which has an appealing peppy theme and an engaging, vibrant performance. Parker’s guitar helps instill an indigo mood for the evocative More Than I Can Say. Parker contributed one composition, F.O.C. which features a stunning improvisation by Mitchell who displays such a pure tone, followed by the deliberate and thoughtful guitar of Parker. The title composition was inspired by Mitchell’s association with Steve Coleman and closes this recording on a high level.

The Awakening impresses with the outstanding playing and strong ensemble playing on challenging compositions. This recording is consistently superb. This writer would love to see this band live.


Awakening

Alex Henderson, AllMusic.com

When jazz critic Peter Margasak interviewed Nicole Mitchell for the liner notes he wrote for Awakening, she explained: "I wanted to dig back into the old-school jazz a bit and yet still make room to branch out into never-never land." And that is a perfect description of what the Chicago-based flutist/composer does on this 2011 date, which finds her leading a pianoless quartet that employs Jeff Parker on electric guitar, Harris Bankhead on upright bass and Avreeayl Ra on drums and percussion. Presumably, the "old-school jazz" that Mitchell is referring to is post-bop, while "the never-never land" is avant-garde jazz. Of course, avant-garde jazz comes in many different flavors. Avant-garde jazz can be totally outside (whether it is scorching, dense, brutally atonal free jazz or the spaciness of the AACM), or it can be avant-garde jazz with an inside/outside perspective--and Awakening, like previous Mitchell releases, has an inside/outside perspective. The material that Mitchell composed for Awakening is fairly melodic; "There," "Momentum" and the bluesy "F.O.C.," for example, offer appealing post-bop melodies. "Curly Top" even has a somewhat Horace Silver-ish funkiness. So no, this 64-minute CD is not an exercise in atonality; that isn't the scenario at all. But at the same time, Mitchell and her colleagues don't hesitate to venture into outside playing when they feel like it. They don't venture far outside, but they do venture outside--and while Awakening is more inside than outside, the outside element is an attractive part of the equation. Mitchell, it should be noted, has favored different combinations of musicians on different albums; she is quite proficient when it comes to ensemble playing and arranging, but an intimate quartet format serves her equally well on Awakening. And once again, the Chicago resident excels as both a composer and a soloist.

Awakening

By Grego Applegate Edwards, Gapplegate Music Review, August 15, 2011

In case we need proof, Nicole Mitchell's Awakening (Delmark 599) shows us that Ms. Mitchell has become one of the premier flute players today. It's a swinging quartet date with well-chosen players, some of Chicago's very best. And it's about as close to straight-ahead as you are likely to hear from Nicole. Now don't make the mistake of thinking that straight-ahead is necessarily synonymous with playing it safe, with endless repetitions of licks and cliches from earlier musical styles. That may be the unfortunate case for some players, but not these folks. NO! Ms. Mitchell does NOT play it safe. And her playing is Nicole right now, not somebody else rehashed.

The compositional elements remain a key part of Ms. Mitchell's way but this time they are primarily springboards to extended band improvisations. Along the way Nicole shows big bright tone, great agility, strong creative control over tone color and an imaginative choice of lines that put her straight-up on top. Jeff Parker on guitar never sounded better. If he sometimes brings to mind Ted Dunbar on this date, it is only in the sense of the restless searching, probing quality of his lines. Harrison Bankhead, as anyone who has listened knows, is one big powerful mother of a bassist and he puts it all out there for us to hear. Drummer Avreeayl Ra is a name less familiar to me. But he gets in the pocket of whatever they are doing: swing, rock-funk, freetime, and STAYS there.

This isn't tame music. It is not music that holds back. It is not music that treads lightly for fear of bending a branch or snapping a twig. It goes where it will with no fear, with great spirit, heartful soul, and a wildly exciting ride to get us all there. This is one terrific group and Nicole is life affirming and breathtaking at the same time. Dig this one deeply and you'll get to another place.