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Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble - Black Unstoppable

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Artist: Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble

Album: Black Unstoppable

Label: Delmark

Review date: Jul. 24, 2008


Nichole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble - "Life Wants You To Love" (Black Unstoppable)


Nicole Mitchell is an award-winning composer, a well-regarded jazz flutist, a multi-tasking bandleader and participant in the collectives Frequency and Indigo Trio, and along with Jeff Parker and Mike Reed, the best known of the younger musicians who have kept the AACM (Association For the Advancement Of Creative Musicians) from turning into a free jazz chapter of the AARP.

Her star is especially ascendant in her hometown of Chicago, where she staged a tribute Alice Coltrane in Chicago’s Millenium Park. Mitchell might be forgiven for feeling a tad self-conscious at this moment in her career, but the Judgment Day Testimony included in Black Unstoppable’s liner notes takes it awfully far. It proclaims her refusal “to be silenced by the commerce of noise,” her devotion to blackness, femininity, the education of children, and her desire to be “a life force for beauty and betterment.”

Her intentions are unassailable, but the burden of that sense of importance and makes Mitchell’s music sag. This is especially true on the three vocal numbers voiced by Ugochi Nwaogwugwu, where Mitchell couches Afrocentric Hallmark sentiments within genre-hopping tunes; “Love Has No Boundaries” is a rather pastel blues, while “Life Wants You To Love’s” rather dire gospel-style exposition of adolescent sexuality is only partly redeemed by a gritty Afro-beat groove. Great tunes can usually trump trite verbiage, but too often the solos on Black Unstoppable are stronger than the melodies from which they spring.

Which isn’t to say that this record is a complete flop. Mitchell has a great, even tone, and her solos jump out of the intricate charts like flying fish kiting off of waves; her maneuvers in and out of “Life Wants You to Love’s” rhythm is especially thrilling. And she’s assembled a pretty strong group of musicians with a balance of musical personalities that enable the Ensemble to negotiate the inside-outside divide and cover the range of jazz epochs and other styles that Mitchell likes to incorporate into her music. Saxophonist David Boykin brings the fire on the title track, and the way he twists a fairly lyrical opening gambit into a coarse, spiraling wormhole that defies the boundaries of breath is pretty marvelous. Trumpeter David Young’s volleys over “Cause And Effect’s jittery refrain remind me of a time (over 40 years ago, I’m afraid) when Freddie Hubbard played with fire, while his muted solo in the middle of “The Creator Has Other Plans For Me” poses a pointed lyrical counterpoint to Mitchell’s elaborate lines. And Jeff Parker is his usual versatile self, ranging from idiomatically correct chords to scrunched electronic accents.

Mitchell has chops and a strong band. Maybe she needs a producer willing to cut out the weak spots.

By Bill Meyer

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