Music Reviews


Flutist Nicole Mitchell is a key player on Chicago's jazz scene, improvising in various small groups, writing for her own ensembles, and making a small shelf's worth of CDs. Recently she's written music in honor of two women who inspired her - Alice Coltrane and Michelle Obama. The Obama tribute, "Honoring Grace," premiered at Chicago's Spertus Museum in September. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Mitchell's music strikes a rare balance between the adventurous and accessible.

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KEVIN WHITEHEAD: To me, Nicole Mitchell is one of the most engaging composer- performers in jazz now. She's a terrific improviser on flute and piccolo with a clear and forceful sound. But she writes well for improvisers too. Starts with catchy phrases that seem almost too simple and then brings on the complications. Her new album "Renegades" matches exploratory playing with deep rhythm grooves and a tight ensemble blend. The group is new to record, her Black Earth Strings - flute, three strings and Shirazette Tinnin's percussion. A lineup of flute and strings may have you picturing jazz and pastels, but this is a tough little quintet - 80 percent women, by the way.

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WHITEHEAD: The band is new. But two players are long time Mitchell allies. Tomeka Reid's cello beats up the ensemble sound and the excellent bass player, Josh Abrams, ties everyone's time together. Nicole Mitchell has worked with larger and smaller bands but this quintet feels like a good fit, just large enough to juggle polyrhythmic cycles and small enough to keep textures transparent and give everyone pivotal roles. They got that interlocking groove thing down.

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WHITEHEAD: Nicole Mitchell is a mainstay of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an organization which ignores boundaries between musical genres. In that spirit, her violinist is a classical musician blooming as an improviser, Renee Baker. Mixing jazz and classical players doesn't always work, but Mitchell gets the best out of both, gets chamber music delicacy and cohesion with strong individuals and a propulsive beat.

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WHITEHEAD: As a composer, Nicole Mitchell has ranged between the high art of last year's xenogenesis sweep and populist anthems of self improvement. One of those makes a token appearance here. Like most artists who test their expressive range, she does some things better than others. But the album "Renegades" finds her zeroing in on what she does best, which means Nicole Mitchell's music just keeps getting better.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches at the University of Kansas. And he is a jazz columnist for He reviewed "Renegades," the new album by flutist Nicole Mitchell and her ensemble Black Earth Strings on the Delmark label.

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