Multiple poll-winning flutist (currently nominated in the Flute category of the Jazz Journalists Association annual poll) Nicole Mitchell has a new recording “Aquarius” on the Delmark label, with a fairly new ensemble she calls Ice Crystals. Much about this new recording, which features vibist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Josh Abrams, drummer Frank Rosaly, and spoken word artist Calvin Gantt on one track, recalls Eric Dolphy‘s classic Blue Note recording Out to Lunch, an impression conveyed through listening well prior to reading Lofton Emanari lll’s informative liner note reference to the Dolphy-Bobby Hutcherson hook-up. Couple this new sound with the fact that Ms. Mitchell, who is due to grace the annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center in May, has relocated from Chicago to Southern California and clearly some questions were in order.
You’ve been identified with the Chicago scene for so long, as musician-composer, as an officer in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), it was kinda surprising to hear that you’d relocated to California. What implications has this had on your music and your efforts as a creative artist in general?
Nicole Mitchell’s latest recording for the Chicago-based Delmark label
Chicago will always be home, and I’m really thankful for the wonderful community there. I learned so much and I know my connection to Chicago is forever. Like most of my friends, I had hard times and great times there. In 2010, twenty years after moving to Chicago, I went through a real change in my life. Things were simultaneously amazing and bleak. For example, it was a life-changing opportunity to be Artist in Residence at the Chicago Jazz Festival that year, and yet in between rehearsals and performances, it was comical that I found myself stranded several times that weekend because my old rickety Volvo finally petered out! Months before my flute had been stolen, which was devastating, but it gave me the opportunity to realize how many people cared and how strong the international arts community is, and the result was an endorsement with Powell Flutes. Those were just a few of many the contrasting details of that year, but by the time 2011 came along, my life had shifted 180 degrees. I felt a real calling to come to California, and I didn’t have it all figured out why, or how it would work. I told my finance, I really wanted to go, and said “Let’s do it!” It was almost as if once the decision was made, everything just came together. I looked up and I had a new life: a new marriage, a new job, a new flute and in a new place to call home. I miss Chicago and will always be connected in some way to the AACM, but I’ve also embraced change.
I’m teaching at UCI (University of California, Irvine), which has been incredibly rewarding. The program I’m in is called ICIT (Integrated Composition, Improvisation and Technology) – a really unique program that is more expansive than a traditional jazz or composition program. I have a group of super nice, talented and brainy colleagues at Claire Trevor School of the Arts. I’m probably going to sound too sappy, but it’s been really inspiring! I especially enjoy giving guidance to students that are doing such creative and exciting work.
All these things have definitely had an impact on my music, although it’s not clear to me yet how I would define it. One big recent change that didn’t have to do with moving is that I spend so much more time composing!! Right before we moved, I had started doing works for orchestra, and I ended up having pieces premiered with the American Composers Orchestra, Chicago Composers Orchestra and the Chicago Sinfonietta. It’s super challenging, and it seemed to have an impact on my music overall. I used to write music really fast, and it seems the more experience I have writing, the LONGER it takes!!
I’m still busy traveling and performing outside of the country, and I’m hoping….dreaming, that during this period I can actually do some more performances here in the USA. I’m super psyched that Ice Crystal will be playing the Kennedy Center [Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival] this spring!
Nicole with Ice Crystal vibist Jason Adasiewicz
Have you found a compatible community of artists in California, comparable to those you’ve collaborated with in Chicago all these years?
Being a part of a vital arts community is still really important to me, and I’m still finding my role here. It takes time to get rooted, but I will say there’s a place in south LA (Leimert Park) that reminds me so much of the Velvet Lounge in Chicago. It’s called the World Stage. Many musicians that perform there have a history with Horace Tapscott and the Pan African Arkestra. The spirit of the music of these musicians is so connected to the AACM, except they never incorporated as an official institution. Horace is gone but his legacy lives on. I’ve also met and heard some great musicians at this other place called the Blue Whale. I started working again with my first mentor, Najite Agindotan, a Nigerian master drummer who studied with Fela and who has an Afrobeat band called Olokun Phophesy. And Dwight Trible is a vocalist that you would swear was from Chicago, the way he sings. There are many amazing musicians here, and so far I’ve worked with pianist Anthony Davis, trombonist Michael Dessen and bassist Mark Dresser and Devin Hoff, among others. Maia (multi-instrumentalist) and Wadada Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell and Jeff Parker (guitarist) are other AACM musicians that got here before me. It’s definitely different in California and my biggest observation is that there is so much talent and so many interesting things going on, but the geography is split up into little cities, so it’s more challenging for people to get the word out about what’s going on. You don’t feel the connectedness as much, but I’m hoping somehow I can help that. For example, I’m working with my Chicago friend (cellist) Tomeka Reid on putting together a Women’s Jazz Composer Festival for the fall. The first one happened last fall and it was very empowering.
Has your overall artistic outlook changed much since you relocated?
The biggest change was a discovery I made a few weeks ago. I was minding my own business, composing, and unintentionally I started hearing electronics for the project and have now incorporated them for the first time with my music. This is a direct influence of the ICIT program at UCI, and it surprised me! I’m excited and challenged to do new things. That’s always been my outlook – to keep growing.
Talk about your new Delmark record “Ice Crystal”. The record seems a bit of a departure as well, not only in terms of overall textures, but in musical cohorts as well.
Does it? Ice Crystal has been around for a little while – since 2007. We just were kind of in the background, with so much great stuff happening in Chicago, and the other projects I was doing. The record just brought it a little more to light, hopefully. I really love the sound of the vibes with flute – always have! When I was a student at Oberlin, the first music I wrote and performed had vibes in it. I’ll never forget that. The song “Yearning” on the album came from way back then. In terms of the band, Joshua (the bassist) has been working with Black Earth since 2000. Wow does time go fast!! I met Jason when Rob Mazurek invited me to play with Exploding Star Orchestra in 2005. He’s a gem. And I’ve always admired Frank’s playing; we just never got much of a chance to work together until now. I have big hopes for the group and the album.
Now that you’ve teaching full-time, how do you envision that experience impacting or dovetailing with your performance career?
Actually, I’m not really teaching more than when I was as an adjunct in Chicago, because I always had 2-5 jobs while I was simultaneously playing the music. It’s actually less stressful (just having one job!!) So the teaching commitment doesn’t really affect my commitment to writing and performing. I just have to be mindful to keep a good balance.
What’s next for Nicole Mitchell?
This weekend, as we speak, I’m preparing for a “Virtual Tour” — a series of telematic concerts where a group of us will be playing in San Diego with a live audience (Myra Melford on piano, Mark Dresser on bass, Michael Dessen on trombone and myself on flute), and simultaneously playing with musicians in other geographic locations in real time via the internet and through video streaming. The audience will see the other musicians on video and hear them as if they’re in the room. Pretty trippy.
Sonic Projections with David Boykin (sax), Craig Taborn (piano) and Chad Taylor (drums) just recorded a new album for Rogue Art. The project is called “The Secret Escapades of Velvet Anderson” and I CAN’T WAIT to share that music with people!! Also, FPE records is going to release my second chapter of music inspired by Octavia Butler, called “Intergalactic Beings”, hopefully in fall 2013.
Sonic Projections is yet another of the diverse Nicole Mitchell’s ensemble projects
I’m also in the development stages of a new multi-arts project called Mandorla Awakening. I’m asking the question: “What would a technologically and spiritually advanced society that is built in harmony with nature be like?” And I’m inviting as many people as possible to imagine with me and contribute to the project in a story of two merging worlds that intersect in the same time/place, but different dimensions. I’m working with video artist Ulysses Jenkins and choreographer Lisa Naugle and also hoping to get students and community members involved in the project, which premieres fall 2013 at UCI’s Xmpl Theater.
More than before, I’m really trying to dig in and do the things that are most important to me as an artist. For example, I’m super excited to premiere this chamber work with the Tri-centric Orchestra April 21st, because I’m finally starting to incorporate some of the poetry and writing that I’ve done over the years with my music and this project does that. I’m really honored to have vocalists Fay Victor, Carl Hancock Rux and Kiran Ahluwalia involved. It’s called “When Life’s Door Opens,” and it’s an expression of what happens when we are at the crossroads of deciding to take our path (whether in art or something else).
Thanks so much for asking these tough questions!