July 26, 2008
Nicole Mitchell: flute, voice
David Boykin: tenor saxophone, percussion
Renee Baker: violin, viola, percussion
Mankwe Ndosi: voice, dance
Marcus Evans: drums
Avreeayl Ra: percussion
(unknown, I missed the name): bass
A hush gently fell upon the Velvet Lounge as Nicole Mitchell and the members of her Black Earth Ensemble joined hands for a pre-performance meditation circle. The deliberate, silent gesture signaled the elevated plane that this group draws upon.
With his first solo of the evening, David Boykin established himself as a centered, creative force to be reckoned with. Beginning with long, sustained tones as he crafted a well formed, intense improvisation with a tone ranging from a soft attack that nearly matches Nicole Mitchell's flute sound to a growling, raspy tenor. Over the course of the evening Boykin tapped into a reservoir of inspired playing that calmly asserted a compelling and exciting presence in the jazz tradition that is new to these ears.
David Boykin was hardly an exception in the Black Earth Ensemble. Renee Baker offered soul drenched prayers on the violin and viola as she built upward with powerful verve. And as band leader and composer, Nicole Mitchell was not outdone by her band mates in the creative expression department. Her unusual vocalization technique combined with the blur of notes from her flute was polished and well adapted for the different moods of her music. Solos from the members of the rhythm section were also operating from the same plane of soul-filled humanity.
Added to this sound was the rich, earthy vocals of Mankwe Ndosi. With "Afrika Rising," a tune that serves as the Black Earth Ensemble anthem, one could feel the gravity of deep jazz tradition and African heritage pulsating in the drums, percussion and chant. This connection was ever present even as the compositions ranged from meditative calm to frenetic exaltation.
Before and between sets Nicole Mitchell was constantly in motion. Dashing off set lists, scribbling out a transposed part, going over arrangement details with individual members of the band or even cheerfully selling her own CDs with a down to earth approachability and a calm smile. Even within this music, she is generous and persistently determined toward each vibration offered up as a prayer of elevated creativity. This dedication to craft and substance hits he soul as surely as any Mingus experience. Nicole Mitchell has developed an ensemble and a sound that is well worth checking out and savoring as an exciting evolution of the jazz tradition.