Review: Nicole Mitchell’s Maroon Cloud, Live at National Sawdust, March 29

No matter how many times flutist, composer, and educator Nicole Mitchell plays in New York, it is never enough. As one of the foremost visionaries of creative music today, Prof. Mitchell has already crafted an incredible body of work and received considerable praise. Her work is at once deeply developed, interdisciplinary, and socially relevant, while also covering a broad aesthetic range intended to appeal to diverse audiences. On this night, in Williamsburg, Mitchell premiered Maroon Cloud, an eight-part suite, as part of the Stone Commissioning Series at National Sawdust. The work is a jolt of optimism, in these uncertain times, aimed at uncovering the “hidden choice” we all have to imagine other ways of thinking and living. Mitchell shared the stage with Fay Victor (vocals), Tomeka Reid (cello), and Aruan Ortiz (piano), all key figures on the New York scene.

The first piece, “Warm Dark Realness,” opened with deep intertwined lines from Victor and Reid, while Ortiz patiently walked up the keys. Reid, who played with astonishing poise and boldness, formed the core of the early moments surging upwards, with her sounds occasionally evaporating into microtones. Mitchell added somber flute lines as the band moved towards its first crest near the four minute mark, before oscillating back down into what felt like a vast, dark ocean of sonic possibilities. Without drums or bass–a challenge in and of itself–the music remained quite fluid throughout, maintaining patient, forward progress, and allowed the four performers to meld their sounds together and, at times, produce a sound that felt like much more than four instruments. Ortiz and Reid built an ethereal duet together, before the latter took a turn into deep bowed lines, allowing Ortiz to dance dexterously on top. Throughout the entire suite, the lower register of Victor’s vocal range allowed her to interact with all three of the instruments in unusual ways, exhibited right from the beginning. Her communication with Reid was particularly dynamic, melding and differentiating at different turns.

The second piece, “Vodoun Spacetime Kettle” was a tribute to Bessie Smith which picked up the pace, featuring Victor’s soulful voice. The otherworldly feel, established in the first piece, continued here, but with doses of familiarity such as the line “Nobody loves you when you are down and out” as well as poignant clarity in the line “Bessie ignited our blood,” as a message to African ancestors in the twenty-first century sent from the future. The third piece, “Otherness,” progressed forward into interstellar sounds. Like much of the suite, the music seemed to grow from Mitchell’s earlier work titled Xenogenesis (Firehouse 12 Records, 2008), which had been influenced by the writings of science fiction writer Octavia Butler (1947-2006), who Mitchell met once not long before her passing. Strong science fiction and futurist imagery was present in this work. Hisses, solar flares, ethereal whispers, primordial stardust, orbiting celestial bodies dueling with their gravity, the vast distance between them, these images became manifest in the sounds, all displayed with pinpoint accuracy.

Having featured the other musicians most prominently through the first three pieces, Mitchell soloed out front with cello support to begin “No One Can Stop Us.” Here the music took an even more optimistic turn, explicitly articulated in the vocal line that matched the title, but also in the bouncing and bopping flute lines. As if to build on that energy, a two-part piece titled “Endurance” followed, with a display of solidarity between Victor and Reid opening in a unified pitch while Mitchell also added sustained notes as Ortiz played geometric counter in ascending arpeggios. At times the sustained pitches added doses of tension, abrasion even, as if to articulate necessary or unavoidable challenges met along the journey. Eventually the piece shifted to a duet of Ortiz and Reid with rich, earthy tones set upon unshakeable foundations that evolved into the full quartet with flute and voice adding buoyancy and positivity.

“Endurance” set the stage for “One Sound Represents,” which featured Mitchell out front in an imaginative exploration of what sound can be. Meanwhile, Victor repeated the line, “Sometimes a sound represents a whole era … sometimes a sound represents a whole people … sometimes a sound represents an eternity …” This swinging piece built up to a brilliant, sophisticated solo by Mitchell in which she displayed the virtuosic command of her instrument. “A Hidden Choice,” the masterwork of the impressive suite, featured Mitchell again with a vertical solo that also stretched into horizontal tones, eventually employing vocalizations through her flute that, when coupled with an adept use of space, caused time to slow down. Then Victor joined to make it feel like a vocal duet in which she worked the alto and tenor range, paired with Mitchell’s flute. Low, somber notes from Ortiz then bolstered this further, juxtaposed with his occasional high pitches which cut through the fluid sonic organism like shattering crystal. The piece ended convincingly and decisively.

The final piece, “Constellation Symphony,” which had the energy of an encore, was propelled by the lyrics, “Breaking through to the other side …” Given the conclusiveness of the previous piece, the final statement proved that the life journey always continues, even after challenging or life-altering moments, as articulated through the final Mitchell solo of the night which set sites skyward, while juxtaposing those moments with occasional and fearless lines that dove into the cosmic nebula of group sound.

At the conclusion of the music, the audience erupted into a standing ovation, voicing their appreciation for Mitchell and her band, a performance that has been one of the very best of 2017. Professor Mitchell intends to record the music soon. She has another record, “Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds” to be released on May 5.

–Cisco Bradley, April 7, 2017