Nicole Mitchell at Happylucky No.1

IMG_5786 brooklyn nostrand ave.I’ve stayed in Brooklyn multiple times and try to visit any time I’m in New York, but I don’t really see Brooklyn. I’m usually in the Park Slope area — quiet and gentrified, lots of trees, lots of bars and hip eateries. At twilight, the sidewalks fill with young couples pushing strollers. It’s not a far walk from Barclay’s Center and downtown, but it feels a world apart to me.

IMG_5792 thestone marqueeFarther east, you get into neighborhoods like Crown Heights, which is more old-school Brooklyn: a little grittier — or, really, just more well-worn. On a commercial street called Nostrand Ave. is an art gallery called happylucky no.1, where The Stone presents shows on weekends. I ventured out there to see Nicole Mitchell (flute) in an ebullient trio with Tomas Fujiwara (drums) and Liberty Ellman (guitar) — three musicians whose recordings I’ve enjoyed but whom I’d never seen perform.

This was the weekend of an unseasonable arctic chill, and temperatures hovered near freezing all evening. That might have kept the audience low. Only four or five of us, not counting the two curators at the door, were on hand, but we got to see a vivacious set built around Mitchell’s compositions.

Even internationally known names like these three have faced small crowds before and still give it their all. They’re pros. This felt like something more, though, like a small party, with all three players in high spirits even before the show started and eager to dig into the work and share the music, even if only with a few people. The music was alive and fun, brimming with the energy of three players locked into the same zone.

Just down the block, on the other side of Nostrand, is a little burrito grill that serves empanadas. Someday, when it’s warmer, I’ll grab a bite there before stepping into happylucky no.1 for another show.

IMG_5788 happyluckyno1
Sound check, seen from the outside.
IMG_5790 mitchell stage
Nicole Mitchell’s stage.


Nicole Mitchell & Afro-Futurism

Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth EnsembleMandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE, 2016)

Mandorla-Awakening-cover-2.jpg“Egoes War,” a seething fog of darkness eventually cut by Alex Wing’s distorted, yelping guitar, is a dramatic and fitting opening to Mandorla Awakening II, Nicole Mitchell’s latest sci-fi-inspired album. Mitchell’s flute is a key part of the tumult, dancing in aggressive spirals.

This is familiar turf for Mitchell. I remember being impressed by her album Xenogenesis Suite (Firehouse 12, 2008), based on Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, in which Earth encounters an alien race that advances itself by swapping genes with other species. The track “Adrenalin,” with its wordless vocal wails, reflects the disorienting madness that would have to come with this transformation, and the conflicting emotions of humanity being simultaneously invaded and improved. The album’s grand finale “seems like the opening to a grand unknown, rather than a resolution,” as I wrote back then.

Mandorla Awakening presents a similar other-worldliness, though ritualistic beats (including swinging, danceable ones), ecstatic free jams, and chaotic eddies of sound.

But it also draws from soul, gospel, and funk with poet avery r. young singing Mitchell’s lyrics about perseverance. “Staircase Struggle” delivers a straight beat with flute and guitar tracing free spirals behind the jam. “We keep on doin’ the same thing / Over and over, and over again,” young sings, eventually leading into a Mitchell poem about social change.

If Mandorla‘s music seems earthbound compared to Xenogenesis, it’s because the story is, too. A global pandemic has left the remains of civilization under totalitarian rule, but a group of survivors has escaped to an isolated island, where they’ve built a happy, functioning society. The central conflict comes with the arrival of two people from the outside world. As Mitchell told the Chicago Reader, “I’m curious about discovering what happens if we unify duality by smashing together two worlds: a dystopic world and utopic world. Can human consciousness be transformed by embracing fears and establishing balance?”

The story culminates with the cooldown jam of “Mandorla Island” and the clackety, celebratory funk of “Timewrap.” The latter is a bit like an encore piece — the album was recorded live in 2015 — and it’s a highlight. But rather than “give away” the musical ending, I’ll finish with “Dance of Many Hands,” an earlier track that’s a small story in itself. It opens with an airy, optimistic jam followed by a brief tribal drum solo by Jovia Armstrong and elegiac cello by Tomeka Reid.


Subway haiku on the red line. Note the missing "w"(Short version: The David Boykin Expanse was good. Tradition-based post-bop with some occasional rap and the star presence of Jim Baker and Nicole Mitchell. If you’re in Chicago, go seek Boykin out.)

Long version:

The Velvet Lounge is Fred Anderson’s club in Chicago, a neighborhood bar with cool blue walls and awesome, adventurous jazz five nights a week. Its former home was around the corner, just off East Cermak, in a run-down building; Anderson had to relocate, at considerable expense, as gentrification plans mowed that building down.

That was long before the recession. The hole from the demolition is still there, empty. But assuming the Lounge is doing OK financially, the forced move was been for the better.

The old place had character — and a multicolored floral wallpaper that screamed out like a colorblindness test — but the new location is clean and smart, without feeling out of place. Every time I’ve been there, someone’s sitting in the back with a styrofoam container from one of the nearby take-out food joints. The bartender is a blue-collar, eastern European type, very friendly and usually talking to one of the regulars in the corner. And 81-year-old Fred is still there some nights, sometimes even working the door himself.

I don’t get to Chicago often. When I do, I always try to work my schedule around a Velvet Lounge visit.

(I’d also used the Umbrella Music calendar to plan for a Elastic on Thursday night, to see Carrie Shull in what looks like an oboe-led improv quartet. I could have made the 11:00 set, I suppose, but the thought of going that far in a cab on a night like that was too much. Yes, I wussed out due to weather. It was severely stormy and, cliché or not, windy. Really, really windy.)

Friday night, I got off work in time to hit Jazz Record Mart, for better or worse — great store, tough on the pocketbook.

JRM happens to be a couple of blocks from Andy’s Jazz Club, and while I was leery of mainstream jazz in a touristy part of town, I also needed to eat, even if it meant a $10 cover. I gave it a shot.

The Moshier-Lebrun Group (quintet: sax, guitar, piano, bass, drums) wasn’t too bad. It’s what I call “contemporary jazz,” modern stuff descended from post-bebop modalism (Andrew Hill would be a good model) but with sugar, a velvet sheen that makes the music airy and, for most audiences, an easy eveningtime experience. Contemporary jazz can rock, and this group did, getting especially stormy during one guitar solo. And it does draw from worthy jazz masters like Hill and even Ornette Coleman. But it can lack grit, and its fire isn’t guttural. Still, not a bad way to spend a dinner hour.

From there, it was a quick bus ride to the South Side and the Velvet Lounge. (For the ride home, I would figure out that the Red Line is a faster, cozier trip.)

The David Boykin Expanse is a quintet led by Boykin on tenor sax and sometimes he adds rap or rap/singing. He’s got terrific MC skills, delivering supersonic rap packed with creative rhymes, and I think he even freestyled a band intro at the end of the second set.

The first piece, “Sunrise,” was a slow, reverent wail in late Coltrane mode. That would be unique in the set; from there, the band went into modern bop pieces with knotted, twisty themes that were mostly upbeat. Solos were usually taken in sequence — Boyken (tenor sax), Nicole Mitchell (flute), Jim Baker (piano), Josh Abrams (bass), drums.

Most of the songs stuck to a conventional format, with solos taking place over rhythm and harmony that pointed towards the heads but were really an improvised jam. One exception was “Omni Valley,” the closing piece, where the convoluted rhythm of the theme was retained during the solos. That was really nice, a different color.

Drummer Avery and bassist Josh AbramsA fill-in drummer named Avery was especially impressive with his solos. Instead of reaching directly for firepower, he’d often work in crisp, calculated off-rhythms, toying with ideas that keep the swing of the song going but divert freely from the flow (I think I heard a few cycles of 5-time in there).

(Didn’t catch Avery’s last name. Or rather, I didn’t pay enough attention because I figured I could look it up on the Velvet Lounge calendar — but it just says drummer “tba.” I lose.)

Not everything worked to perfection. Many of the solos seemed to end abruptly, although that could have been a function of me getting absorbed in the rhythm instruments, which sometimes happens. Baker, a great pianist, was having an off night. On one solo in the second set, he gave up early, his hands raising up as if to say, “What the-?” The solo was actually good, but I think he lost his train of thought, so to speak. He got a good-natured round of applause anyway.

Baker’s got a crucial role in this band, by the way; it’s in his solos that things get the most “out” and the most convoluted. Wouldn’t be the same without him.

The crowd was sparse, as often happens with venues (and music) off the beaten path. That’s a shame. I hope the Velvet Lounge is doing better on average and won’t die of neglect. On the plus side, it was good to find out I wasn’t the only audience member who didn’t already know someone from the band. One couple, in particular, was chatting up the musicians and buying CDs, which was nice to see.

Playlist: July 17, 2009

KZSU playlist for Friday, July 17, 3:00 p.m. to 7:45 p.m.

Rent Romus stopped by to talk about the Outsound New Music Summit coming up next week. All the artists involved had contributed tracks to a promotional CD for — well, for situations just like this one:

source:….. Bonfire Madigan was a KZSU fave when I first joined, in 1998. I’m happy to find out she’s still performing — didn’t realize she even opened for Laibach. She’s a singer who plays cello, producing brusque songs that you might call tough-fisted, rough-edged folk (really it’s closer to indie rock, but not as “rock” minded as Rasputina). On Friday, she’ll be performing a 36-minute piece, “Portrait of the Artist as a Transliminal Criminal,” with accompanying film. Her site describes it as a one-time-only event.

WireTapMusic did a profile of Madigan back in May.

….. Natto recorded a couple of CDs on the 482 label earlier this decade. They practice a calm sort of improvisation, often meditative and probably influenced by Pauline OliverosDeep Listening aesthetic. Philip Gelb on shakuhachi (Japanese wooden flute)

….. Richard Waters is the inventor of the waterphone. It’s the instrument that made the V-ger sounds in 1980’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. (If you don’t know what I mean, DO NOT go rent the movie to find out. Just watch Wrath of Khan and pretend there were no Trek movies before that.)

….. I’m not familiar with Peter Kolovos, but Rent described his guitar playing as a combination of noise and “surgical precision.” Who could resist?

And, notes from the rest of the show:

source: delmark….. After the glorious experimentalism of her Xenogenesis Suite, Nicole Mitchell comes back to jazz form, with a mix of straightahead stuff and some world-music dabblings. Renegades features a subset of her Black earth Ensemble, focusing on the strings: violin, cello, bass (plus drums and Mitchell’s own flute, of course.)

….. Nancy Wright is a local R&B saxophonist. Friendly bar-jazz stuff; it’s not my type, but I played it as a nod to our blues DJ, Byrd of Paradise.

….. Whoever Libellula are, they put together a nice hour-long drone on this CD. I selected an excerpt where things shift and tumble a bit.

source:….. Matt Haimovitz is a cellist who puts out modern classical CDs on his own label. This disc of cello/piano pieces has some good dynamic stretches, exciting stuff. The piece I played is titled “Part I,” but it comes in two parts, so we heard part 1 of “Part I.” I like that.

….. Annea Lockwood once did a nifty CD, The Glass World, that featured the sounds of all manner of glass objects. Zach Wallace is likewise working with glass on Glass Armonica, but where Lockwood did lots of vignettes, Wallace works on long pieces. “5” has a droney, humming sound that’s I would guess comes from a bow stroked across the armonica (it’s one of these) which Wallace built himself out of wine glasses. Dusted has more to say here.

…..For the show’s final hour, I looked in the direction of outward-facing rock, inspired by the Bonfire Madigan track. (She’ll be performing a 36-minute piece during Friday’s “InterMedia” show for Outsound.) The 9-minute Eddie the Rat track was a particular highlight for me. Continue reading “Playlist: July 17, 2009”