Emerald Hills CD Reviews from AllAboutJazz and Point of Departure Music Journal and More!

Emerald Hills

By John Sharpe, AllAboutJazz, November 22, 2010

In some ways Chicago-based flautist Nicole Mitchell's Emerald Hills resembles an old style AACM record: there's an adventurous spirit, a diversity of approaches, and chops to burn. More recent reference points include Mitchell's own Xenogenesis Suite (Firehouse 12, 2008) but (largely) without the challenging vocals. Joining Mitchell in the quartet she calls Sonic Projections, are long time associate David Boykins on tenor saxophone, Craig Taborn on piano and Chad Taylor behind the traps.

A lot of detail is rammed into the 71-minute program. Mitchell's writing frames opportunities for exploring all the combinations inherent in the band, often with the flautist taking a back seat. In particular it provides a great showcase for Boykins who boasts one of the largest tenor sounds this side of David S. Ware, but doesn't too often get the chance to prove it. Taborn also benefits from the generous solo space whether propounding angular pyrotechnics or endowing his hands with independent motion at opposite ends of the keyboard.

Mitchell displays her distinctively expressionistic approach to the flute, whereby her blown multiphonics are expanded by vocalizations in symbiotic interweaving, for added emotional kick. Overlapping voices open the portentous "Ritual and Rebellion," recalling similar gambits by Muhal Richard Abrams and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, while Mitchell's naïf, half-spoken lyrics enter the mix on "Affirmations." Fortunately for those who prefer to avoid vocals, such moments are few and do not detract from the heavyweight instrumental work, and the piece develops intensity with darting flute, Taborn in full flight and Boykins slow burning tenor preaching.

Flute and tenor saxophone harmonics intermingle on "Wild Life," Boykins squeaks in contrast to buzzing growls from Mitchell in a striking role reversal. Taylor gets down in a series of duets, sandwiched between edgy themes, on "Chocolate Chips," where his earthy drums ground the leader's spiraling declamations. Taborn shines on the title track, his ringing piano shadowing Taylor's choppy clatter as the horns juxtapose a repeated unison, getting wilder until a grinding halt. "Peace" is all wavering overtones and single struck notes, forming a palate cleansing finale to one of Mitchell's strongest albums.

Emerald Hills

By Ed Hazell, Point of Departure Music Journal, Moment’s Notice, May 2012

It’s difficult to point to a “typical” album by flautist-composer Nicole Mitchell. This is always a good sign for an artist; it’s an indication of continuing creativity and growth. Mitchell has a distinctive voice as an instrumentalist and a composer, but she hasn’t settled into a formula for her music. With Sonic Projections, a quartet featuring tenor saxophonist David Boykin, pianist Craig Taborn, and drummer Chad Taylor, she moves in directions she hasn’t traveled with any of her other ensembles.

In the handful of recordings she’s released, Mitchell has resisted repeating herself. All her recordings display a lively curiosity in the expressive possibilities of different instrumentations and musical forms. Her Black Earth Ensemble is in the classic Chicago Great Black Music mold, using jazz methodology to explore or deconstruct different styles of African American music. But she doesn’t limit the group, either, recording the extended Xenogenesis Suite (Firehouse 12), as a kind of oratorio for voice and jazz ensemble. The freewheeling Indigo Trio with bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Hamid Drake emphasizes collective improvising and groove. Her Black Earth Strings reshapes many of her ideas to the capabilities of a string ensemble.

Sonic Projections makes fewer genre references than Black Earth and it blurs the line between composition and improvisation through continuous musical dialog. They make busy, dancing music, full of graceful interplay over elusive rhythmic pulses. The music is eventful, but it never feels overcrowded. Mitchell is so intent on communicating with her listeners that her music is always clear, uncluttered, and direct.

Her band maintains that clarity, too, focusing on the composition’s structure and intent in their soloing and in their carefully balanced ensemble sound. For instance, they give “Chocolate Chips” a unified performance by letting the jumpy, fragmented theme guide them through a series of duets and solos. “Visitations” takes many twists and turns as it unfolds, opening with a tense, jarring duet for Taborn and Taylor, then winding downward into stillness for a trio of flute, tenor, and piano before Mitchell winds the group back up for a tangled, high-speed conclusion. “Affirmations” weds the spiritual uplift reminiscent of Pharoah Sanders heard in Boykin’s soloing with the band’s chamber AACM leanings, a curious, blissful fusion that’s quite moving. The written material of “Wishes” threads its way behind Mitchell’s lines, which she plays with an airy, spherical tone and a throbbing vibrato, like a less jarring Anthony Braxton composition.

Mitchell is full of ideas and it’s pleasure to hear where she lets them take her. So far, it’s been somewhere new each time she records. 


Emerald Hills

By Lyn Horton, AllAboutJazz, May 30, 2010

All four of flutist Nicole Mitchell's groups reveal specific tangents which her music can follow. One of those groups—Sonic Projections, whose evolution grew out of paying tribute to George Lewis' book A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008)—shows what Mitchell believes to be her rebellious side. Mitchell is herself a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM).

Sonic Projections consists of Mitchell, pianist Craig Taborn, tenor saxophonist David Boykin, and drummer Chad Taylor. There is no bass. Emerald Hills projects a thinking person's music.

The music is concerned with extending range, discovering sound and transforming what melody there is into synchronicities, choruses and lyrical interludes; it is also concerned with telling stories through musical metaphors. Considered as an entire statement, the journey this album takes is one of the recognition of the individual, in no matter how dissonant or harmonious the context. Each track continues a musical idea or changes course, not in the radical sense, but with recovered breath to reach another stepping stone to realization of the collective improvisational consciousness.

"Ritual and Rebellion," explores a number of directions that includes not only the recitation of poetic lines, but also the congruent trekking of the flute and saxophone; the piano and drums act as a subterranean punctuating non- rhythmic support for the two wind instruments for the major part of the piece. The piano takes over the lead for a nearly orchestral close. "Affirmations" brackets the album with an equally expressive presentation of vocals, integrated with an instrumental simulation of vocal intonation.

The most lyrical lines arrive midway through the recording in "Wishes," where the flute and sax merge to maintain a nearly melancholic flow. The flute takes flight throughout the record and the piano is often not far behind. The sax anchors the pitch of the flute, whether playing in unison or contrapuntally, and balances the sound so that both height and depth are enclosed in the same embracing package. Flirting with sound and silence, "Peace" absorbs the vicissitudes of the preceding improvisation. Emerald Hills ends in a waft of piccolo whistling that breathlessly fades away.