Renegades CD Reviews from AllMusic, National Public Radio, AllAboutJazz and More!
By Alex Henderson, AllMusic
Considering Nicole Mitchell's connection to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), some listeners might expect Renegades to be much more radical than it actually is. But then, the AACM has never been about dogma or dictating that musicians have to sound a certain way; it has been about options. And on Renegades, Mitchell opts for an inside/outside approach that is generally more inside than outside -- and for all its abstraction, intellect, and angularity, this 2008 date is fairly melodic. The acoustic quintet that Mitchell leads on Renegades is billed as Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Strings; in contrast to her larger Black Earth Ensemble, this post-bop/avant-garde unit (mildly avant-garde instead of radically avant-garde) doesn't include any trumpet or sax. The only wind player is flutist Mitchell, and her accompaniment includes Renee Baker on violin and viola, Tomeka Reid on cello, Josh Abrams on upright bass, and Shirazette Tinnin on drums and percussion. Baker and Reid's strings do a lot to shape the sound of Mitchell's quintet, which incorporates elements of Euro-classical chamber music but has strong African, Asian, and Middle Eastern influences as well. Occasionally, Mitchell sings, bringing a bluesy soulfulness to "By My Own Grace." But this 67-minute CD is mostly instrumental -- and while Mitchell is a likable vocalist, the flute is her main vehicle for jazz expression. Many admirers of Mitchell's Black Unstoppable CD/DVD were no doubt hoping that the Chicago resident would follow that 2007 recording up with another Black Earth Ensemble date. But her Black Earth Strings group is equally impressive in its own right, and excellence prevails throughout the engrossing Renegades.
By Kevin Whitehead, NPR, October 8, 2009
To me, Nicole Mitchell is one of the most engaging composer/performers in jazz. She's a terrific improviser on flute and piccolo, with a clear and forceful sound. But she writes well for improvisers, too.
She starts with catchy phrases that seem almost too simple, and then brings on the complications. Her new album, Renegades, matches exploratory playing with deep grooves and a tight ensemble blend. The group is a new one, her Black Earth Strings: flute, three strings and Shirazette Tinnin on percussion. A lineup of flute and strings may have you picturing jazz in pastels, but this is a tough little quintet.
The band is new, but two players are longtime Mitchell allies. Tomeka Reid's cello beefs up the ensemble sound, and the excellent bass player Josh Abrams ties everyone's time together. Mitchell has worked with larger and smaller bands, but this quintet feels like a good fit.
Just large enough to juggle polyrhythmic cycles, but small enough to keep textures transparent and give everyone pivotal roles. They've got that interlocking groove thing down.
Mitchell is a mainstay of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an organization which ignores boundaries between musical genres. In that spirit, her violinist is a classical musician blooming as an improviser, Renee Baker. Mixing jazz and classical players doesn't always work, but Mitchell gets the best out of both — chamber-music delicacy and cohesion, with strong individuals and a propulsive beat.
As a composer, Mitchell has ranged between the high art of last year's Xenogenesis Suite and populist anthems of self-improvement; one of those makes a token appearance here. Like most artists who test their expressive range, she does some things better than others. But Renegades finds her zeroing in on what she does best, which means Mitchell's music just keeps getting better.
By Jeff Stockton, AllAboutJazz, January 16, 2010
To call Nicole Mitchell the preeminent jazz flutist working in jazz today would be too limiting. Amid the remarkably fertile Chicago scene, she has distinguished herself as a top instrumentalist, composer, leader and musical ambassador, as well as serving as the president of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).
Renegades, credited to Mitchell's Black Earth Strings, exemplifies her unique approach. Chamber-like, the band has a drummer (Shirazette Tinnen) but is led by Mitchell's flute alongside violin/viola (Renee Baker) and cello (Tomeka Reid). Josh Abrams' delicately plucked bass fits perfectly into the hammer-on-felt sonic atmosphere. The tunes are relatively concise with an emphasis on ensemble play. Two of the longer tracks, however, prove to be the most engaging. Black Earth Strings interpret "Wade in the Water" by slightly dragging the tempo, conveying the fatigue of struggle, and "By My Own Grace" features a brief but emotional Mitchell vocal that underscores the song's defiance and the performer's resilience. This is one of the most accomplished CDs of the past year.
By John Barron, AllAboutJazz, July 4, 2009
Flutist Nicole Mitchell has been earning much deserved praise as of late for her various Chicago-based projects. Mitchell was voted Jazz Flutist of the Year in 2008 by the Jazz Journalist Association and in 2006 the Chicago Tribune named her Chicagoan of the Year.
On Renegades, Mitchell's second release for Delmark Records, the Co-President of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) takes the listener on a fun, unpredictable ride with her boisterous Black Earth Strings quintet, consisting of violinist/violist Renee Baker, percussionist Shirazette Tinnin, bassist Josh Abrams, and cellist Tomeka Reid. Abrams and Reid both appeared on Mitchell's 2007 Black Earth Ensemble release for Delmark, Black Unstoppable.
With elements of free-jazz, bebop, funk, Afro-Cuban, and classical it's hard to categorize Mitchell's music. One thing for certain, however, is the level of camaraderie between musicians, interpreting Mitchell's challenging, yet soulful compositions. Intricately contrapuntal, pre-conceived ideas ("No Matter What," "Wade," "Aaya's Rainbow") sit side-by-side with open-ended, free form structures ("Symbology #1," "Symbology #2," "Symbology #2a").
The piccolo can be a dangerous instrument in the wrong hands. The instrument's high-pitched piercing sound doesn't always lend itself to spontaneous flourishes. Fortunately, Mitchell is able to coax warm tones out of the instrument on the jagged "No Matter What," one of the more engaging tracks on the disc.
Baker and Reid give compelling performances, melding easily with Mitchell's animated approach. Abrams' looming bass keeps a relenting pace throughout. The bassist swings as hard as anyone with strong walking lines on tunes such as "Ice" and "Wade." Tinnin is commanding with an explosive flurry of funk on "What If" and a hard swinging back-and-forth with Abrams on "Mama Found Out."
A disc worthy of repeated listening, Renegades sheds further light on Mitchell's ever-evolving creativity.
By Richard Marcus, BlogCritics.org, July 16, 2009
Some musicians are content with playing the same type of music over and over again. Once they discover a sound that works for them or something that sells they stick with it. While they might mix it up slightly every so often so they don't get board, they'll usually stay within the perimeters they have defined for themselves. Once in a while though you'll get a musician who is never content with just doing one thing and has other projects operating on the side while keeping their main one going. While a lot of people who front their own band also play with others, not many play in other people's bands and lead two completely different bands as well.
Jazz flautist Nicole Mitchell is probably best known for her work with her jazz band Black Earth Ensemble. However they're the only band she's been leading over the last few years. Now, for the first time, she and the Black Earth Strings can be heard on CD. Renegades, their first disc, was released in May on Delmark Records and it shows why Mitchell is considered one of today's foremost jazz musicians.
With all 16 tracks on the disc being composed and arranged by Mitchell we get a good idea of not only her creativity but her versatility as both a performer and a composer. On Renegades you'll hear everything from the discordance of free-form avant-garde to the echoes of 19th century spirituals as Mitchell explores the meaning of the CD's title. In some ways their music is a bit of a renegade itself, for when was the last time you heard of a jazz quintet made up of flute, violin, cello, bass, and drums/percussion? Mitchell is something of a renegades on her own anyway, for how many women do you know leading jazz ensembles today who play something other than piano or merely sing?
Right from the opening track, "Crossroads", you know you're in for something different from what you're used to, as the song opens with the faint echoes of a bell like instrument over which the violin and cello start chopping out a staccato beat. They are joined by a drum being played in counter point and the sound builds with Mitchell's flute swirling in on top. Just when we are beginning to become comfortable with the swirling of the flute, it falls away, as do the rest of the instruments until we're left with only the drum speaking its insistent rhythm. However, it's not the drum that ends up ending the song - as the music builds once more to a crescendo of flute and strings to end with a bang and not a fade to black.
I'm sure the majority of us think of the flute as a lovely melodic instrument and associate stringed instruments like the violin and cello with symphonic elegance. Well you're going to be in for a big surprise from these renegades as they take these instruments to places you've not heard them taken before. Renee Baker on violin and viola, Tomeka Reid on cello, Josh Abrams on bass, and Shirazette Tinnin on drums and percussion take their lead from Mitchell's flute in pushing the envelop of what their instruments are capable of. They never quite go over the edge into discordance, but on occasion they skirt so closely that you can hear they are only a step away from falling from music into noise.
However it's that ability to keep away from the edge, not falling over the precipice into complete disharmony, that makes them so exciting to listen to. The title track of the disc, "Renegades" is a perfect example of this as almost every bar skirts with leaving behind what we would call music and descending into chaos. Yet no matter how disjointed it may sound in places, a sense of melody and tune can always be discerned. Its an incredible explosion of sound and fury expressing their willingness to break free of all boundaries and take chances that very few others who have played their instruments have ever taken.
In contrast to the wildness of "Renegades", are songs like the ninth track on the disc, "Wade", inspired by the old spiritual, "Wade In The Water". In the liner notes Mitchell talks of how that old song was instructions for run away slaves to make sure they waded deep in water so they could escape the hounds sent out to track them down. There's a story in the music of this song; the story of people trying to make their way to freedom. Listening we can hear their exhaustion and stress; you can almost see them creeping slowly through the night as they keep their eyes and ears open for any signs of their hunters. Somehow the five instruments in Black Earth Strings manage to bring to life the whole experience of what it was like to be on the run; the fear of recapture and the hope for freedom.
Aside from the quality of their musicianship, what also amazed me about the performances on this disc was the diversity of sound that these five musicians were able to create. I wasn't really quite sure what to expect from a quintet made up of these instruments, but I didn't think they would have been able to create the variety of sounds and atmospheres that are on this disc. I've always thought of violins, cellos, and flutes as being rather singular sounding; not capable of creating a great deal of diversity. So I was constantly being surprised at what I heard from song to song in terms of the sounds and textures generated by their playing.
I've heard any number of modern and classical string quartets and ensembles. From the modern sounds of the Kronos Quartet playing Jimi Hendrix to traditional groups playing a typical repertoire of Beethoven and Bach. However I can honestly say I've never heard anything quite like Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Strings before. A fusion of classical, jazz, contemporary composition, avant-garde jazz, and traditional rhythms bound together by a spirit of adventure and a willingness to take chances make them one of the more exciting and interesting combos of musicians that you're liable to hear in any genre. If you're willing to be taken places by music you've never gone before than these people are more than willing to be your guides. It's an experience unlike any you've ever had before and one well worth having.
By Troy Collins, AllAboutJazz, May 30, 2009
Chicago-based flutist, composer and bandleader Nicole Mitchell has presented her impressive skills in a wide range of contexts, from the intimate Indigo Trio with bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Hamid Drake to her flagship band, the Black Earth Ensemble. The later has demonstrated a remarkable ability to move from the eclectic modern jazz of Black Unstoppable (Delmark, 2007), to the harrowing futurism of Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler (Firehouse 12, 2008). She has also contributed her enviable talents to Anthony Braxton's 12tet, the collective quartet Frequency and Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra.
Renegades is the premier of her string ensemble, Black Earth Strings, featuring classical violinist/violist Renee Baker, cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Josh Abrams and drummer Shirazette Tinnin. In classic Ancient to the Future tradition, Mitchell, as Co-President of the AACM, embraces myriad genres, augmenting her accessible avant-garde aesthetic with African rhythms, Western classical music structures and aspects of blues, be bop, funk and soul. She infuses her lissome compositions for this string-heavy line-up with the same open-ended approach, ensuing in a lush, vibrant recording.
A singular stylist, Mitchell's sweeping flute vocabulary echoes her expansive writing. Extended techniques, including alternate fingerings, multiphonics, changes in tone color and vocal interjections are used sparingly, resulting in a soulful, earthy sensibility. Equally expressive, Baker and Reid employ a plethora of string techniques, from ghostly glissandos and crystalline harmonics to sinewy double stops and pneumatic pizzicato. Abrams' stout bass tone provides a solid foundation while impressive newcomer, Tinnin, adds youthful verve. Abrams and Tinnin also double on ethnic instruments like dumbek, gimbre and tabla, lending authenticity to their more exotic excursions.
The quartet brings their effervescent sensibility to an assortment of styles, including free bop ("Renegades"), bebop ("Ice"), swing ("Mama Found Out"), funk ("What If"), soul ("By My Own Grace") and ballads ("If I Could Have You The Way I Want You."). Invoking darker aspects of history, Mitchell draws allusions to slavery on "Wade," with an expansive, lyrical meditation on the spiritual "Wade in the Water." She also toys with cultural preconceptions, setting the hypnotic North African rhythms of "Windance" against the pithy neo-classical excursions of the numbered "Symbology" series, while threading divergent facets of indigenous polyrhythms to austere classicism on "Crossroads" and "Waris Dirie," yielding new hybrids.
Avoiding eclectic posturing by virtue of her compositional acumen, Mitchell's writing eschews stylistic boundaries to embrace a multiplicity of genres, making each one her own. An endlessly fascinating listen, Renegades is her most compelling record to date, and a sure contender for many end of the year lists.
By Brad Walseth, jazzchicago.net
This may be my favorite Nicole Mitchell release yet. With Renee Baker on violin and viola, Tomeka Reid on cello, Josh Abrams on bass and gimbre and young drummer/percussionist Shirazette Tinnin showcasing her sensitive rhythmic creativity, flautist Mitchell leads this group through an exciting, dynamic and organic montage of African American musical styles ranging from rhythmic sounds of the African continent to North American swing, with hints of gospel (a radical reworking of "Wade in the Water"), folk, classical chamber music and free form modern jazz thrown in as well. You might think this could lead to mayhem or unlistenable stretches, but that is anything but the case here, as the players are first rate and there are grooves aplenty, and delicious melodic form providing a framework on which to hang the musical tapestry on these short pieces (only one more than 6:00 long). My current favorite is the extremely hip "What If," but there are interesting interludes galore that will have you returning often. Wonderful original compositions performed admirably by this stellar ensemble!