by Piotr Michalowski
When people think of the flute, they rarely associate it with jazz music. But there is nothing intrinsically "nonjazz" about any instrument; the main problem with some is their low volume, an issue that was overcome with the general use of amplification. But such problems notwithstanding, the flute was already used in New Orleans ensembles at the beginning of the last century; the first recorded jazz solo on the instrument dates to 1927, when Alberto Socarrás was featured on "Shootin' the Pistol." Players such as Wayman Carver, Jerome Richardson, and Frank Wess were featured on flute in various big bands, and from the 1960s on many saxophone players have doubled on the smaller horn with great success. More recently, full-time flute players such as Herbie Mann, Sam Most, Hubert Laws, and James Newton have established a firm place for the instrument in modern jazz.
Nicole Mitchell has followed in their footsteps. She is a classically trained flutist who concentrates on one instrument (although she also plays the piccolo and the alto flute), and she's developed a highly individual style. Initially inspired by visionaries such as Eric Dolphy and Newton, she extended her well-developed classical technique in new directions, concentrating on the more progressive forces in improvised music. With a degree in music from Oberlin, she settled in Chicago and quickly became immersed in the unique new-music scene of that city, joining the all-woman ensemble of the famed Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). When Mitchell joined, she was one of the new young faces; now vice-chair of AACM, she is cultivating another generation of artists as the organization celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year.
Many have recognized her talents as a flute player, and she is often invited to play throughout Europe and Canada. And so Mitchell divides her time between constant international travel, a busy schedule of performances and teaching in Chicago, and organizational work for AACM. But she also possesses other talents
that are key to understanding her well-deserved recognition. A true leader, she stands at the helm of a number of groups that serve to highlight different aspects of her musical vision. She can do this because she is not only a performer but also a dedicated composer and arranger, with a highly personal sense of melody and a love of complex but driving, swinging rhythms. As a leader-composer she follows in the great tradition of Duke Ellington and Sun Ra. Nicole Mitchell makes her Ann Arbor debut at the ninth Edgefest, at Kerrytown Concert House, with the Black Earth Strings on Thursday, October 20, and as a guest with the Ed Wilkerson Quartet on Friday, October 21.
[Review published October 2005]