With Her Flute, Nicole Mitchell Opens Portals Into Afrofuturist Worlds

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Composer, flutist, educator and bandleader Nicole Mitchell.  (Amanda E Friedman)

In her music, Nicole Mitchell doesn’t just envision alternate worlds where Black creativity and humanity can thrive. The virtuoso flutist has become a major force in jazz by presenting and recording utopian communions where musicians and poets (and sometimes dancers and visual artists) improvise and explore together.

Though she grew up mostly in Anaheim and is now the chair of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh (after a seven-year stint as a professor at UC Irvine), Mitchell is indelibly linked to Chicago, where she came of age as a composer and bandleader. The first female president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, she’s drawn on the polymorphous collective founded in the mid 1960s for a series of ambitious, often science-fiction inspired projects with her steadily evolving Black Earth Ensemble.

“That’s one of the things that’s so exciting about the AACM, the way it encapsulated this idea of self-determination, expanding Black identity,” says Mitchell, 54, who presents her first concert (in person and online) as Mills College’s 2021-22 Jean Macduff Vaux Composer-in-Residence on Saturday, Feb. 5, at Littlefield Concert Hall.

Building on an expansive aesthetic summed up by the AACM-generated Art Ensemble of Chicago’s motto “great black music: ancient to the future,” Mitchell embraced a musical continuum encompassing blues, swing and bebop, Eastern modes, African polyrhythms, free improvisation and far beyond. It’s a vast palette of sounds and forms that she’s used as fuel for her Afrofuturist ventures, “like Star Trek going where no person has gone before,” Mitchell says.

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“There is so much possible and so many ways to explore. The AACM created an environment of support to venture out, take risks and make discoveries like in a scientific lab. There’s so much originality and individuality. Each person is so different in their aesthetic and paradigm and research area.”

Mitchell’s program Saturday at Mills includes a free-improvisation set with harpist Zeena Parkins. Parkins has collaborated with Björk and John Zorn, and now shares the position of Darius Milhaud Chair in Composition at Mills with AACM cellist Tomeka Reid (who describes Mitchell, her bandmate in the acclaimed collective trio Artifacts, as “a mentor and huge source of inspiration”).

The compositions she’s presenting include “Procession Time” (for alto flute, bass clarinet, piano and cello), a piece inspired by the Black abstract expressionist painter Norman Lewis. She’ll also perform “Cult of Electromagnetic Connectivity” (for flute, Bb clarinet/bass clarinet, violin, cello and percussion), which was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Mitchell will probably end the set with “Interdimensional Interplay,” a piece for solo piano and recorded flute that was inspired by her collaborations via telematics (which enable musicians in different geographical locations to perform together in real time through high speed/high bandwidth links found mostly at academic research institutions). During her years on faculty at UC Irvine, Mitchell was often one island in the UC telematic archipelago performing live at UC Berkeley with UC San Diego bassist Mark Dresser, UC Berkeley pianist Myra Melford and colleagues in Zurich, New York City, Amherst and beyond.

“The technology is still new and complex and takes a lot of time to get it right,” she says. “In this piece I made it seem telematic but it actually wasn’t. I pre-recorded a video of myself soloing and wrote a solo piece for piano as if I was there. You hear my playing but I’m not physically there interacting with the piano.”

Mitchell is back in the Bay Area on Feb. 19 for a performance at the SFJAZZ Center with drummer and NEA Jazz Master Terri Lyne Carrington as part of her five-day residency. Joined by Brandon Ross on guitar and David Virelles on piano, Carrington premieres a new project inspired by Wayne Shorter’s Afrofuturist three-disc album and graphic novel Emanon, which was named best album of the year in the 2018 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll. (Shorter’s new opera Iphigenia makes its West Coast premiere on Feb. 12 at Zellerbach Hall.)

On a trip to Los Angeles a few months ago, Carrington and Mitchell filmed the legendary composer reading from his graphic novel. For the Miner Auditorium performance, the quintet will improvise to excerpts of Shorter’s recitation, and then elaborate on those impromptu themes. Mitchell’s encounter with the 88-year-old Shorter, whose compositions have defined jazz’s questing ethos since he joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1959, provided a clarifying moment.

“He’s one of those artists, people don’t even understand the depth of creativity he’s put forward through his entire career,” she says. “Wayne is really a super imaginative, out-of-the-box thinker who’s creating new worlds with his music. I really connect with this idea of trying to get to the core of what life is and explore that in the music. He articulates it really well.”

Like many of her AACM colleagues who’ve spent time teaching at Mills, including founding members Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell (no relation), Mitchell has found an avid audience in the Bay Area. In a course that bassist Lisa Mezzacappa teaches at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley, “Women Creators, Women Leaders,” she’s found that Mitchell’s music “has so many rich points of engagement,” Mezzacappa says.

“For people who haven’t heard more adventurous jazz, it has all these points of entry, no matter where you’re coming from,” she continues. “There’s her incredible playing. Her projects have brought in traditional Japanese and West African instruments and made them part of her sound. There are the delicious melodies and grooves, or crazy free improv. There’s this whole universe she creates.”

It’s a universe that keeps expanding. She’s featured on an upcoming box set called Baker’s Dozen by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, alto saxophonist and flutist Henry Threadgill, and she’s launching her own label, Black Earth Music.

Mitchell is joining a small cadre of Black women jazz artists who’ve created their own platforms. She’s looking to “help recalibrate the jazz scene” by introducing some of the younger artists “expressing different visions of a world that we would want to live in,” Mitchell says. “I’m really looking at artists who are innovative and fresh, bringing in people that are not as recognized, but doing really amazing work.”

The first album in the queue is The Antidote Suite by percussionist JoVia Armstrong, who’s featured on Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble 2017 Afrofuturist masterwork Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds. In many ways the label is her latest addition to the foundation created by the AACM and surrounding Chicago scene. It’s a D.I.Y. model that has shaped the Bay Area, perhaps most importantly via pianist Jon Jang and tenor saxophonist Francis Wong’s Asian Improv aRts.

From the perspective of Mezzacappa, who’s played an outsized role organizing and producing concert series and events, the key to Chicago’s success is that “it’s not just these poetic ideas,” she says. “You have to walk the walk. Chicago people seem to have this two-way street where artists give generously and also receive, maintaining these long connections. The artists take care of each other and keep looking for opportunities. Nicole Mitchell brings all of this Chicago ethos with her.”

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That’s a world well worth imaging.