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Nicole Mitchell - Engraved in the Wind

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Artist: Nicole Mitchell

Album: Engraved in the Wind

Label: RogueArt

Review date: Apr. 16, 2013

The flute is allover the jazz map, and yet, it’s somehow also strangely neglected. While it has been featured prominently on albums as disparate as Roland Kirk’s landmark I Talk with the Spirits and Robert Dick’s often trippy Jimi Hendrix tribute, Third Stone from the Sun, offerings like the disc under discussion are rare but certainly not surprising. Especially when coming from Nicole Mitchell, a composer whose talent and innovative ideas inform all of her compositions and arrangements. This is essentially a solo flute album, though several of the tracks feature overdubbing, but even those layered pieces are unlike anything I’ve heard before from the instrument.

A factor that separates this offering from many other flute recordings is the production. Most flute recordings are wet, as if the flute needed to be bolstered, or made larger than it is, but on Engraved in the Wind, as Joe Morris observes in his liners, “You can hear the wind in every breath used to make every sound on this amazing recording.” Room ambience is present, but kept to a minimum. It all works especially well on the compositions that involve significant amounts of gradually morphing repetition, such as the serpentine “Blue Mountain.” Each nuance is crystal clear as she changes register and circles back along the melodic line, having mastered the art of circular breathing and the precise placement of ornaments. The keys make a percussive sound as the varying shades of wind and tone surge and abate, sometimes with such blinding speed that ghost harmonies are created, until the last note softly surprises.

Repetition is only one of Mitchell’s games. Similar riches of timbre imbue the bluesy swinging “Six Wings,” and does it ever swing, despite flutter-tongued interruptions and inter-registral leaps. On an entirely different emotional plain is the frantic opening section of “Making of Rose Quartz,” where Mitchell blends flute and voice to create wild homophonies and difference tones seeming to emanate from far below on quality speakers.

If some sort of comparison is to be made concerning the multi-tracked compositions, the intricacies of Henry Threadgill’s Flute Force 4 come to mind, but with some hesitation, as Mitchell’s is a very different soundworld. Where Threadgill usually employs densely layered blocks of sound in the service of rhythmically unified counterpoint, Mitchell might conjure shades of Ligetian micro-polyphony, as on the aptly named “Beehive,” where piccolo-range buzzing ostinati circle-dance around each other over periodic lower sustains before gradually dispersing and then reassembling. She takes the idea to the next level on the enigmatic “Desert Choir,” where alto flute supports dangerously high-register chirps and thrums amidst some sort of sandstorm, as if the recording were made on location.

What Sonny Sharrock or Fred Frith did for the guitar, Nicole Mitchell has now done for the flute on Engraved in the Wind. She has deconstructed and reassembled it, demonstrated its possibilities in settings that manage simultaneous diversity and focus. These are miniatures that somehow never feel like sketches; each exudes a sense of completeness, of inevitability, and listening to the collection as a whole is an almost cyclic experience. RogueArt has long done right by Mitchell, and the French label has now released what may prove to be her most important contribution.

By Marc Medwin

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