Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble: Intergalactic Beings
Intergalactic Beings is flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell's second Afro-futurist avant-jazz suite based on the Xenogenesis novels of Octavia Butler (the first, Xenogenesis Suite, appeared on Firehouse 12 in 2008). Culled from an April 2010 live recording in Chicago, the album's nine settings are breathed into being by the Black Earth Ensemble, a tenet featuring some of Chicago's most esteemed players. Though Intergalactic Beings is, in fact, the group's eighth album, it's the first, thanks to the newly established FPE imprint, to see release on vinyl. The recipient of numerous awards (a repeat winner as “Top Flutist of the Year” in the Downbeat Critics Poll, for example), founder of the Black Earth Ensemble (in 1998), and currently an assistant professor of music at the University of California, Mitchell has appeared in publications such as Ebony, Downbeat, Jazz Times, and American Legacy and served as the first woman president of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).
A few words about the text first. Though Butler's source material in part concerns the abduction of humans by extraterrestrials, it's no all-too-familiar sci-fi tale. In fact, in her text the aliens are intelligent beings who rescue humanity from the self-destruction of nuclear war and provide the means by which humanity might return to earth, albeit in a transformed state. Reimagining the alien abduction story in this manner allows it to resonate in contemporary ways, specifically in addressing how issues of dislocation, survival, and recovery might apply to contemporary societies vulnerable to various threats, be it marginalization or, at the extreme, annihilation.
Mitchell has drawn from Butler's work for inspiration, but the album is not a literal transcription of events presented in the writing; instead, Mitchell chose to focus on issues that affected her strongly, which she then translated into sound form. That being said, there's nothing to prevent the listener from broaching the material as pure instrumental music sans the Butler-related background context. Stylistically speaking, it's easy to hear Mitchell's music as heir to that produced by artists such as Sun Ra, Muhal Richard Abrams, and The Art Ensemble of Chicago. Like the AEC, Mitchell honours the legacy of jazz history while at the same time boldly committing herself to the ongoing advancement of the form. In her own words, Intergalactic Beings is, tellingly, “a rebellion from the idea that jazz is solely a ‘finger-poppin' feel-good music'.”
With her sensibility informed by classical and jazz traditions, Mitchell's rich, orchestral brew transcends straightforward categorization, resulting in an hour-long album that balances improvisation and through-composition with admirable fluidity. A generous leader, Mitchell's flute playing (memorably showcased in “The Inevitable”) is complemented by the expressive vocalizing of Mankwe Ndosi, who's not only prominently featured but often used in such a way as to give freeform voice to the alien dimension of Butler's saga (e.g., “Negotiating Identity”). Cellist Tomeka Reid, violinist Renée Baker, trumpeter David Young, guitarist Jeff Parker, and bass clarinetist-tenor saxist David Boykin also contribute significantly to the music's dense polyweave and are ably supported in doing so by drummer Marcus Evans, percussionist Avreeayl Ra, and bassist Joshua Abrams.
There are moments when I'm listening to Intergalactic Beings where I imagine I could be listening to one of Henry Threadgill's outfits (during the “The Ooli Moves,” for example, whose rambunctious spirit recalls Very Very Circus). It's not that Mitchell sounds all that much like Threadgill, however; it's more that she shares with him an audacious sensibility and advanced compositional style. And while I'm tempted to use the word unconventional, too, something tells me words such as conventional and unconventional aren't part of Mitchell's vocabulary. My guess is that, much like Threadgill, the music she creates comes as naturally to her as the language she speaks and the air she breathes.