Nicole Mitchell: Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds
FPE Records

It's certainly possible to enjoy Nicole Mitchell's second full-length of heady Afrofuturism for Chicago-based FPE Records sans awareness of the bold sci-fi narrative the visionary flutist-composer devised for it, but one's appreciation for Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds is definitely enhanced by familiarization with it. She's a remarkable innovator whose work is thematically rich, thoughtfully informed as it as by topics relating to technology, politics, and spirituality, and musically varied, drawing as it does from jazz, rock, spoken word, and world traditions.

The new release is rooted in a 2099-based story-line that juxtaposes two civilizations, the World Union, a decaying, hierarchical society marked by injustice and inequality, and Mandorla, whose egalitarian harmonization of spirituality, technology, and nature offers an evolutionary advance on the old model (the almond-shaped mandorla, by the way, merges two circles as an ancient symbol of wholeness). Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds explores the reconciliation and rapprochement of dualities—between composition and improvisation, vocal and instrumental, Western and Eastern, male and female—as it attempts to explore the possibility of moving beyond binary thinking to reach a stage of cohabitation, even if the arrangement is an uneasy one rife with tension. Such tensions permeate the work itself in its intermingling of vocal and instrumental parts, and its contrasts between raw and elegant episodes.

In Mitchell's mind, the crippling ego wars of the World Union can lead to something new and better—if, that is, we exchange the blade for the chalice, the former a symbol for the outmoded model and the latter representative of a creative, non-violent way of life. It's important to note, however, that Mitchell isn't pushing an either-or agenda, but rather one that embraces duality and regards tension as creative energy. In her own words, with Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds, she “enjoyed merging the chalice with the blade, the urban with the earth-focused, the electronic/electric with the acoustic, the female with the male.”

Recorded in May 2015 at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, the album sees the leader on flute and electronics sharing the stage with fellow Black Earth Ensemble members Renée Baker (violin), Tomeka Reid (cello, banjo), Alex Wing (electric guitar, oud), Jovia Armstrong (percussion), Tatsu Aoki (bass, shamisen, taiko), Kojiro Umezaki (shakuhachi), and poet avery r young, whose vocal contributions give the work's second half a powerful charge. In keeping with Mitchell's grand vision, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds is an epic, encompassing suite whose structural design accommodates contrasts of multiple kinds.

At the outset, Wing's aggressive guitar playing brings a scorched-earth dissonance to “Egoes War” before unison lines by flute and strings offer a grounding counterpart (a similar ‘battle' will wage between them during “Forest Wall Timewalk”). Abetted by Armstrong's colouful percussive detail, Aoki's shamisen and Umezaki's shakuhachi bring a distinctly Eastern flavour to the material, while the string contributions of Baker and Reid add immeasurably to the expansive sound world presented. I'll admit that during the first run-through young's performance in places struck me as over-the-top (on “The Shiney Divider” in particular), though repeated exposure has rendered it less so; there's certainly no doubting the force of its conviction, even if no one would ever use the word subtle to describe it. The coupling of the Black Earth Ensemble's playing with young's emoting proves effective on “Staircase Struggle” (“We keep doing the same thing over and over again and I thought if maybe we could slow down and really see it, we could understand ourselves a little better and even make a change”), and further to that, words such as “Our blood is spilling in Baltimore, Ferguson, Chicago, and Nepal” veritably demand they be delivered with passion.

Though Mitchell solos at length during “Listening Embrace” and “Mandorla Island,” her expressions wonderfully supported by the others, the recording doesn't register as a showcase for the leader but as an authentic ensemble work where all of its contributors' voices are featured. The release is available in CD and double-LP formats, but it's the former that's the better fit, simply because it allows the work to be heard in all its glory without interruption, much as it would be in a live presentation.

April 2017