Xenogenesis Suite Reviews by Jazz Times, iTunes, Signal to Noise, Point of Departure Music Journal, AllAboutJazz and more!
by John Chacona, Signal to Noise, Summer 2008
For those who have never heard of Octavia Butler, to whom this album is dedicated, a bit of background: Butler was an acclaimed science fiction writer, the winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and to date the only science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant. Flutist Nicole Mitchell was a fan of Butler's fictionand composed a suite as a reaction to Butler's 1987 novel, Dawn, a part of her "Xenogenesis Trilogy." Mankwe Ndosi's mostly wordless vocalizations, one part Jeanne Lee, one part June Tyson, are the lead voice and signature sound of the CD. Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble is a fine band in the loose and powerful tradition of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative musicians, a group Mitchell heads as co-president. With it's churning rhythms, high-intensity blowing and sharp ear for colors, Mitchell's "Xenogenesis Suite," is quintessentially AACM music with a twist. She takes care of the ancient roots--much of this music has a haunted, ritual quality that feels very African in its inspiration--while pointing the way to the musical future midwifed by the AACM for the past 40 years. The day after she submitted funding proposals for this composition, Mitchell learned that Butler had died suddenly at her Seattle home; a sad but appropriate end for the body of a woman whose mind dwelled in other planes of there.
by Brian Morton, Point of Departure Online Journal, Moments Notice, May 2008
Novelist Octavia Butler died after a fall outside her home in Lake Forest Park, WA, in February 2006. She was not yet 60. Her science fiction – she commented that there wasn’t much science in it – was typical of much African-American writing in the genre in concentrating very largely on racial and gender issues, but one of the intriguing aspects of Butler’s work, buried away in that self-deprecating comment, was the extent to which it overturned familiar expectations about genre and literary form, even as it utilizes familiar elements of both. To that degree, if no other, she seems an obvious source for flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell, whose sole physical encounter with Butler seems to have been somewhat confusing though she was clearly powerfully moved by the novelist’s Lilith’s Brood (formerly Xenogenesis) trilogy.
The first of these, Dawn (1987), tells the story of an African-American woman called Lilith Iyapo who is resurrected by an alien race following a catastrophic thermonuclear war on earth. The Oankali have three genders, male, female and ooloi. They also seem to have a sense of humor, a commodity strikingly missing in most mainstream science fiction. In the other books of the sequence, Lilith’s offspring Imago (Jungians and entomologists, prick up your ears!) and the ooloi Jodahs complete a cycle of identity and transcendence. Mitchell, though, seems for the moment more concerned with the set-up of Dawn, though she provides no more than a few passing references and texts in her liner-notes.
Essentially, Xenogenesis Suite pitches vocalist Mankwe Ndosi as the human element (Lilith, presumably) against the alien environment proposed by the instrumental ensemble. This requires some adjustment of expectations since Ndosi’s part – compounded of elements of sung text, scat, Schrei, panting sounds, giggles and whoops – is more immediately alien, or alienating, or estranged, than the relatively conventional rocking meters of the accompaniment. That’s deceptive, though, for the vocalist does provide a thread through a musical discourse that’s clearly no longer tied to “jazz” or “classical” norms.
Mitchell is an AACM member whose adoption of that organization’s aesthetics and social ethics – described recently in a book by senior member George E. Lewis – is both squarely in a tradition and subtly opposed to it. Mitchell’s insistence on an ensemble approach reflects AACM’s communitarian roots, but her willingness to draw on Western art music as well as jazz language is suffused with a non-dogmatic feminism that seeks to blend the genetic material rather than simply oppose its different elements. This, at bottom, is ooloi music.
In the same way, Mitchell takes a highly individual approach to the non-Western mythography that was as central to AACM’s various projects – think Braxton’s Trillium – as it was to the Arkestra’s attempt to boldly go where many had gone before but never as dramatically uniformed or as polyculturally alert. Set for a moment Octavia Butler’s ?topian vision against the liberal-progressive H. G. Wells model or the brutally transgressive manner of a Samuel Delany, and you have a sense of how different this music sounds to the Arkestra, the Art Ensemble, to various Braxton groups, Lewis projects, Ewart, Mitchell, Abrams, Smith collaborations. With Xenogenesis Suite, Mitchell and the Black Earth Ensemble have taken a step beyond the more normative language of last year’s Delmark Black Unstoppable.
At first hearing, one’s disappointed to hear so little of Mitchell’s extraordinary flute playing at the front of the mix. For that, you need to go to her Indigo Trio work with Harrison Bankhead and Hamid Drake. Whether played clean or with superbly controlled overblowing, she’s the most exciting player on the instrument for a generation, the natural successor (when one is needed!) to the great James Newton. For much of the first half of the record, with Ndosi dominant, the instrumental sounds that push forward are Justin Dillard’s piano, Tomeka Reid’s cello and Marcus Evans’ and Avreeayl Ra’s percussion. There are surges from trumpeter David Young and tenor saxophonist David Boykin, as well as that fine bass player Josh Abrams, but the human voice predominates. Intriguingly, as soon as Lilith/Ndosi starts to acquire verbal language, that sense begins to fade, and by the time of “Transition C”, some thirty minutes into the suite, Mitchell and Ndosi are at moments almost indistinguishable in the mix, even when the vocalist has a text to work from and the flutist is playing without obvious vocalization. The concluding “Dawn of a New Life” restores that impression after an interlude called “Before and After” that seems to sum up much of what has gone before. Structurally, it’s a vital element of the piece, though it seems to delay the inevitable climax.
Critics who rush to pronounce a work “important” are a little like millenarian prophets announcing a new messiah. If they turn out wrong, they look kinda stupid and even if they’re right they’re liable to be trampled in the subsequent rush. So maybe best to say that this is a remarkable achievement by a still-evolving talent whose recording debut Vision Quest was only seven years ago. That’s long enough for a full evolutionary transformation, and with this set Mitchell seems ready to embark on something even more radically exciting and impressively achieved. I have a sense Anthony Davis and Jeanne Lee may have dabbled in similar territory. Braxton certainly has, but with Stockhausen’s ghost – and therefore Wagner’s – hovering uneasily nearby. Like the other AACM Mitchell, she’s already beyond category and working at some distance from the tired debate about composition vs. improvisation. If that isn’t important, I don’t know what is.
by Troy Collins, AllAboutJazz, April 22, 2008
The most important jazz flutist of her generation, Nicole Mitchell reveals another facet of her diverse musical persona on Xenogenesis Suite. Inspired by the work of Hugo award winning Afro-Futurist science fiction author Octavia Butler (1947-2006), Mitchell transposes Butler's words into an abstract sonic travelogue. Breathlessly vivacious and boldly creative, it is Mitchell's most experimental and challenging release to date. Moved by Dawn (1987), the first book in Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, Mitchell approached Chamber Music America for a grant to fund a piece in honor of the author, whom she met in 2005. Unfortunately, Butler passed away the day after the proposal was submitted, never hearing Mitchell's sonic interpretation of her writing.
Mitchell draws upon the novel's metaphorical tale as the conceptual foundation for her suite. Ostensibly a story of alien abduction and human-alien interbreeding, Dawn is the tale of Lilith, a human survivor of an apocalyptic nuclear war who is rescued by an alien race (the Oankali) that procreates with other species. Butler's alien abduction parable incorporates rape, racism and slavery into a disturbing tale of survival.
A confident performer with a positive mindset, Mitchell approached Butler's dark and unsettling work as a conceptual challenge. Transposing such material required her to draw upon previously untapped creative potential; in the process, she brings a sense of levity to often harrowing subject matter.
Mitchell channels the emotional turmoil of Butler's writing into a nine-part suite that explores a variety of moods and genres. Invoking the acerbic lyricism of sixties-era New Thing Afro-spirituality and the seminal innovations of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Music), the album exhibits a wealth of avant-garde traditions. Thorny contrapuntal melodies (”Sequence Shadows”), frenetic free-form interludes (”Before And After”), eerie pointillist soliloquies (”Oankali”) and exotic rhythms (”Smell Of Fear”) coalesce into a lurid panorama.
As co-president of the AACM, Mitchell embraces her historically rich legacy, employing all manner of extended techniques and devices to invoke Butler's shadowy alien landscapes. Recalling the vanguard work of Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble revels in their AACM heritage, but it is vocalist Mankwe Ndosi, as the protagonist, that provides the album with soul.
Vacillating from fragmented wordplay to acrobatic vocalese, Ndosi's emotionally expressive voice and otherworldly annunciations impart a human element to Mitchell's dreamlike arrangements. Accompanying Ndosi's riveting testimonials, the leader's haunting flute and David Boykin's robust tenor commingle with David Young's clarion trumpet and Tomeka Reid's sinewy cello. The ensemble is supported by an elastic multi-generational rhythm section that veers from dramatic modal dirges and regal marches to quicksilver spasms of atonality.
Conveying a menacing apocalyptic atmosphere without abandoning melody, harmony and structure, Mitchell proves herself an innovative composer, magnanimous band leader and compelling soloist. A surprisingly effective combination of disturbing surrealism delivered with raw emotion and lyrical experimentation, Xenogenesis Suite is an endlessly rewarding listen.
By Mike Shanley, Jazz Times, August 2008
A few months after releasing the excellent Black Unstoppable, flutist Nicole Mitchell heads away from the previous album’s blend of free-blowing grooves and soul vocals toward something a little more sinister. Xenogenesis Suite is subtitled “A tribute to Octavia Butler,” the science fiction author whose novel Dawn inspired Butler to compose a 12-part piece that deals with the way individuals combat fear and how they need to adapt in the face of inhuman circumstances. It may sound crazy on paper, but it’s one of the few post-9/11 concept albums that succeed in balancing a heavy concept with solid music.
The Ensemble members work largely as a unit to create the edgy soundscape, although tenor saxophonist David Boykin gets to blow a gruff solo on “Adrenalin” and Mitchell steps out briefly on “Transition C.” Largely, they play tense riffs or drones, drum and percussion clatter and explosive shifts in dynamics. On top of the music, vocalist Mankwe Ndosi acts as an additional instrument, wailing, whispering, gasping and occasionally singing lyrics. Her performance falls somewhere to the left of Abbey Lincoln’s work with Max Roach and to the right of Patty Waters, and on first examination it’s an annoying distraction. On repeated listens, Ndosi’s role makes sense in the overall suite and serves as a reminder that that this is supposed to be challenging music.
by François Couture, AllMusic
Xenogenesis Suite is a very strong and convincing proposition from flutist Nicole Mitchell. Moving, intricate, and immediate, this album marks a paradigm shift in her work as a composer, toward a much more personal voice. This piece is based on Octavia Butler's novel Dawn, a reflection on how human beings can adapt to inhuman circumstances: "If anything you had known is no longer, and you were placed in a seamless space, what would you feel?" (from the track notes). The main (and sole) character, a woman, goes through feelings of fear (of the unknown), withdrawal (from her past), anguish (at what is to come), repulsion (at alien life forms), and resolution (to start anew). Singer Mankwe Ndosi portrays these emotions with stunning beauty, mostly without any lyrics, her voice often featured as the main instrument through the nine movements. Mitchell's music is at times expressionistic (the dark "Sequence Shadows" or the uplifting "Dawn of a New Life," which has echoes of the ecstatic side of John Coltrane) and at times more abstract. The score leaves ample room for improvisation shaped into group macro-movements, but there are also plenty of written-down passages, from ostinati to riffs, fragile melodies, and ominous harmonic progressions. The opening "Wonder," "Sequence Shadows," and "Adrenalin" are the album's highlights, maybe simply because they stray further away from the Art Ensemble of Chicago's ethos. Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble displays excellent musicianship, but the focus is on a group sound and the score, not on individual prowess (Ndosi's vocals aside). Even Mitchell's flute remains discreet. Then again, Mitchell has never been about flashiness. Xenogenesis Suite is the kind of album that gains depth with each listen.
By Nic Jones, AllAboutJazz, April 23, 2008
There's both a buzz and an independence about flautist Nicole Mitchell. Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute To Octavia Butler is her second disc for a label other than her own and it marks the arrival of a singular talent for whom the future holds much promise. That said there's a pervasive anxiety in this music that can render it forbidding.
While there's nothing intrinsically wrong with edginess in music, when the strength of that quality comes at the expense of others it can make for a frustrating listening. Thus the agitation of "Transition A" comes on like an end in itself, and while the music and its rendering is far too deft to result in some not unprecedented sound and fury, here the result seems too self-contained, devoid of external reference points.
If this is a problem as such, it's only an intermittent one. "Oankali" is an intimation of wider, less claustrophobic vistas made remarkable by the fact that it happens largely over the most rudimentary drum figure. Mankwe Ndosi's declamatory vocalising however, monopolises the ear, and not least because it's nearly impossible to gauge precisely what she's so anxious about. The piece's seemingly indeterminate development however, is captivating.
The same quality is applicable to the following "Adrenalin," where the band's take on the piece's skewed logic gives it buoyancy. Tenor saxophonist David Boykin comes on like an amalgam of Booker Ervin and Gato Barbieri. Nkosi's contribution is again declamatory, but here her work sets up an extraordinary tension with the measured work of the band.
There is little overall sense of the expansive in this music though. In comparison with, say, the ensemble work of Mitchell's namesake Roscoe, there's nothing of that man's parade ground pastiche, and the anxiety referred to above seemingly allows no room for humor.
It could be argued that anxious music like this equates with the anxious times we're living in. Plausible though it might be, there's little of simple human comfort in either the argument or this music.
By Kurt Gottschalk, AllAboutJazz, October 6, 2008
The words ‘flute’ and ‘vocals’ on the back of a jazz record can suggest something fairly specific, something that is, well, fine for those who like it. But the combination needn’t necessitate an easy listen and if anyone in recent memory was likely to break the mold, it was Chicago’s Nicole Mitchell.
Mitchell has made good records, but ‘great’ is a pretty tall order. On Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler, she has achieved on disc what those who have seen her perform knew she had in her. It is strong. It is firmly in the tradition of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (she is currently co-president of the Chicago chapter), but also something quite fresh. It’s an inspired work.
The 50-minute suite is dedicated to writer Octavia Butler and is built from her book Dawn. It’s not a literal telling of the story but, as Mitchell writes in the notes, is a “compositional journey...stimulated by my reaction to reading Butler’s novel.” Familiarity with the book, however, is not a precondition to grasping the power of the music. Mitchell works with repetition, dissonance, open-ended soloist sequences, force and fragility in fascinating ways, with a nonet (including saxophonist David Boykin, bassist Josh Abrams and drummer Avreeayl Ra) that fully grasps the richness and diversity of the work.
Mitchell is also a good and not great, singer. As a performer, her talent lies with the flute (which she plays exclusively) and a large part of what defines Xenogenesis Suite is the vocalizing of Mankwe Ndosi. She works well with the lyrics, but is also an impressive abstract singer, carrying melodies and falling in with the group’s improvisations. Ndosi’s presence puts a face on the work, giving it a soulful cry reminiscent of some of Archie Shepp’s more composed, humanist suites. But again, Mitchell isn’t copping Shepp any more than she is Joseph Jarman, Henry Threadgill, Ed Wilkerson or any of the other great AACM composers for large ensembles. She clearly knows their histories and plenty of others as well. It’s knowledge of music and history and humanism and literature that makes Xenogenesis Suite Mitchell’s first important record.
By Brad Walseth, JazzChicago.net
Octavia Butler was a singular soul. As an African American woman, she was unique among her fellow science fiction authors, but her uniqueness was also her strength as she was able to write from experience to portray the disadvantaged and dispossessed. Her most famous work, Kindred, told the story of a modern day black woman who time travels back into the days of slavery where she has to deal with conflicting emotions and hard choices. The Xenogenesis Trilogy is considered Butler's masterpiece. The first volume, Dawn tells the story of a young black woman who is abducted by aliens who seek to save their own species by intermingling with the human species, whom they consider inferior. The analogies to the black experience are unmistakable. Flautist/composer Nicole Mitchell, herself a black woman attempting to make her way in world dominated by white males, felt an affinity to Butler's work, and especially Dawn. The "Xenogenesis Suite" is based on the emotional reactions Mitchell got from the story, rather than specific storyline, but it captures the claustrophobic essence and sense of dread and helplessness inherent in Butler's story.
Mitchell's improvisatory nature and composition strengths seem well-suited to the task of bringing Butler's themes into a musical realm. Her use of odd time signatures and merging of free elements with composed especially serve her well in presenting With her stellar Black Earth Ensemble in tune with her vision, Mitchell has composed a suite that is as harrowing as it is beautiful. With David Boykin on tenor sax, Josh Abrams on bass, Marcus Evans on drums, Avareeyal Ra on percussion, Justin Dillard on piano and David Young on trumpet, the ensemble creates a dreamscape that is by turns a nightmare. Cellist Tomeka Reid, especially shines here, providing darkness and gravitas on pieces like "Smell of Fear." Meanwhile, vocalist Mankwe Ndosi provides the human element with her mostly wordless vocals that add to the unsettling effect.
Mitchell, as always allows her bandmates plenty of opportunities in the spotlight, and they all come through with aplomb. Pianist Dillard shows a nice avant garde touch on the keys, as on "Sequence Shadows," and the interplay between the horn players as well as that between the rhythm section members is exceptional. Boykin does his usual stellar work on the heart pounding "Adrenalin," proving again that he is a player who deserves wider recognition. However, when Mitchell does take a turn in the center, as on "Transition C," it is always a delight to hear this wonderful player cut loose. Obviously, this music is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. Those expecting "Lullaby of Broadway" may instead find themselves on a dark and lonely street within their own subconscious, but for those more adventurous listeners, the rewards are there, and the music serves as a true introduction and counterpart to Butler's groundbreaking work.
By John Sharpe, May 16, 2008
Expectations must have been confounded in the premiere of flutist Nicole Mitchell's Xenogenesis Suite at the 2007 Vision Festival. Presented here in a crisply recorded version from the Firehouse 12 studio the previous day, the suite is a far cry from her previous Festival appearance with a freewheeling trio in 2005, and very different again from her recent well-received Black Unstoppable (Delmark, 2007) release. The focus this time out is on Mitchell the composer, whose intentions are manifest through some intense group readings of her charts. The nearest reference point is the ensemble works of fellow AACM spirit Muhal Richard Abrams, not so much in terms of style, but more definitely in terms of scope.
This extended work was inspired by the theme of fear in science fiction writer Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, more as an emotional reaction, rather than a specific storyline. Mitchell explains in the liners: "the process of writing this music allowed me to face the feeling of fear head on—to enter it and explore it." The unusual back story has drawn Mitchell to new ways of working with an unsettling tonal palette full of clashing sounds, stark juxtapositions and overlapping lines, moving gradually towards resolution over the course of the set. In the middle of all this sits the largely wordless emoting of Mankewe Ndosi tapping directly into the psyche through a litany of human sounds. How you react to this vocal tour de force is likely to likely to determine your reaction to this disc. Even though the voice is mixed down alongside the other instruments, it remains at the heart of the piece. Initially off-putting, I was able to accept it as part of the overall rich sonic tapestry after a couple of listens.
While there are few solo features in the involved group readings, there are nonetheless passages where members of Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble shine: a stretch of free piano from Dillard in "Wonder"; squealing, gobbling, gurgling tenor saxophone from Boykins in "Transition C"; and a spell of piercing, growling flute with vocalised overtones from Mitchell in the same piece, are a few that spring to mind.
Taken as a whole this is an intriguing set, moving outside the comfort zone, but ultimately paying back repeated listens, and a splendid lesson on the merits of sometimes confounding expectations.
This 2008 release is an out-jazz wonder. The young flutist Nicole Mitchell, who is a member of the venerable Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, has crafted a work that combines the spirit of free improv with a strong compositional sense. Xenogenesis Suite is based on a trilogy by the great African-American science fiction writer Octavia Butler. The late author was one of those fantasists who created wholly believable alien worlds where real human emotions, often dark ones, played out. Xenogenesis Suite is Mitchell’s emotional response to Butler’s work, with the instrumental music meant to convey Butler’s wonderfully strange environments and Mankwe Ndosi’s vocals standing in for the human presence within them. Mitchell’s approach captures the intensity of the challenging situations that Butler’s protagonists find themselves in. Ndosi’s often wordless vocalizing is powerful and unique; she carves out her own space on the musical landscape. Mitchell’s writing for the eight instrumentalists — who along with Ndosi make up the Black Earth Ensemble — is strikingly fresh, and this music is both deeply rooted and futuristic, in more ways than one.
by Marc Medwin, Bagatellen, May 29, 2008
This piece was the biggest surprise of last year’s Vision festival. It boiled with excitement and raw power that spread throughout the space in waves as the music rose and fell. Even the quietest moments were suffused with energy, and at climaxes, the volume and multihued textures were overpowering.
The studio recording of Mitchell’s tribute to a profoundly important African-American woman author does not convey the same sense of unbridled vitality as its concert performance. That said, the studio environment also brings advantages; the consistently rewarding Firehouse 12 label has released a finely detailed reading of the work, one in which Mitchell’s fine orchestration is even more clearly evident than it was at the premier. From the opening upward flourish of the first movement, the recording is imbued with a sense of purpose that underlies every phrase of the beautiful scoring. Yet, there is a sense of transcendent stillness, most likely engendered by the relative serenity of the studio. These ruminative moments are juxtaposed with the busy bass, drums and percussion work of Josh Abrams, Marcus Evans and Avreeayl Ra respectively, their numerous and varied exchanges heard to full effect in the crisp recording.
As “Smell of Fear” moves from a similarly anticipatory calm to the menacing pulse that underpins it, the slightest microtonal motion becomes apparent as Mitchell’s flute melds effortlessly with David Boykins’ tenor and David Young’s trumpet. The clarity and presence of each instrumentalist is amazingly evident even on a track like “Adrenalin,” where Tomika Reed’s expert cello work graces the increasingly hectic mix.
The composition certainly invokes Mitchell’s associations with the AACM, the multimovement work clearly rooted in the multicultural conventions birthed by improvisational practices of the 1960s; however, Mitchell’s harmonies owe a large debt to contemporary classical music, and her effective blending of stylistic traits becomes more apparent upon repeated listening. Her playing is second to none, scaling heights of register and virtuosity and making the suite’s conclusion the powerful statement it is.
In concert, vocalist Mankwe Ndosi’s contributions provided the axis on which the piece turned, and she remains pivotal on disc. Even when her voice is buried during ensemble passages, it is an integral part of the textural, bespeaking and enhancing the many psychological states captured in Mitchell’s composition. Often though, that unmistakable voice rises, phoenix-like, to propel the music forward, her pitch range matched perfectly by the myriad vocal subtleties of which she is in command. Watch as her sobs, or is it nervous laughter, emerges from the multi-pulsed counterpoint of “Sequence Shadows,” to cite only one brilliant moment.
This is a finely detailed rendering of a wonderful piece of music, and the playing is first rate. I hope that the Xenogenesis Suite is only one of many such works to be penned by this talented composer and performer.