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Music DVD Review: Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble – Black Unstoppable – Live At The Velvet Lounge

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Quick, name another Jazz flutist aside from Eric Dolphy. Did you even know that Eric Dolphy was a flutist? Are you having trouble?

Okay let us make it a little easier shall we? Name one flutist, no matter what type of music they play. James Galway and Jean-Pierre Rampal are names that might ring a bell with some people, both having strayed into popular music on occasion. Aside from them, there just aren't that many well known flutists, and even those aren't household names. For some reason the flute just hasn't seemed to be able to capture the public's imagination like other instruments.

It's sort of odd when you consider that aside from the drum the flute is one of the most common and oldest instruments in most cultures. Whether made from bamboo, cedar, or in some cases clay, they are played by blowing into or across a hollow core carved out of the material, with six holes or elaborate set ups like concert flutes to control the air flow. They all operate on the same basic principle of air exhaled equals music.

The problem with the flute is, unlike some wind instruments, it requires a great deal of finesse in order to play. For those of you who have ever experimented with a recorder you may have noticed that the harder you blow into the mouthpiece the less likely you are to produce sound.  Playing flutes of any style requires an amazing amount of breath control. To play it with any success, you have to learn to synchronize your breathing with the rhythm of any song that you are playing and be able to quickly change from long sustained exhalations to short bursts and back again.
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Unfortunately the lack of flutists seems to be self-perpetuating. So very few people play flute in North America that not many people consider it a solo instrument. Therefore there aren't the examples of flute players out there for people to follow like there are guitarists, saxophonists, and trumpeters.

When Nicole Mitchell first started playing flute she remembers she chose the instrument before she chose jazz. Nobody around her considered her instrument of choice to be a jazz instrument.

It wasn't until she was in her sophomore year of university that she found out there were jazz flutists. Her instructor took a little piece of paper, wrote the words Eric Dolphy on it, and sent her to the library. A whole new world opened up to her. She started taking private classes with flutist James Newton, (paying for them by busking on the streets of San Diego), and ended up at Oberlin's Conservatory in Ohio where she studied composition as well as performance.

In 1993 she ended up back in Chicago and has quickly established herself as a presence in a town full of gifted musicians. Novelty wears off quickly, and nowhere as quickly among professional musicians, meaning that Nicole's popularity is due to her talent and not because she's one of only a small number of jazz flutists. This is confirmed by the recognition she has received from magazines like Downbeat, winner of their Rising Star award three times, and her status within the Chicago music community where she is currently Co-President of the famed Association of the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

Of course where it really matters is what she does on stage, and now thanks to the good folk over at Delmark Records there are two great opportunities to hear her and her amazing band, Black Earth Ensemble. Black Unstoppable – Live At The Velvet Lounge is a DVD recording of the band earlier this year, while the CD of the same name, (minus the Live bit) are studio recordings of the material performed on the DVD.

I have to be honest; I had no idea what to expect when I popped the DVD into my player. Flutes, in my experience, are an instrument that have long been subject to abuse. They either are used to make airy fairy new age crap, or turned into something so shrill and discordant that listening is painful. Nicole Mitchell laid all my fears to rest from the opening notes of the first song on the DVD. She has to be one of the most singularly gifted musicians I've heard in a long time, let alone flutist, and her compositions reflect her ability.

Her technique on the flute is immaculate, the flow of music is never interrupted, and you swear she doesn't take a breath from the beginning to the end of a tune. Notes cascade from the end of her flute to form patterns of sound that are both melodic and exciting. Like other gifted musicians, she never lets herself be wed to one area of the scale and  her solos makes full use of all the octaves available to create the richest aural tapestry possible.

Musically, she covers the spectrum from the freest of free form jazz, to funk, blues, and pieces that combine all three elements in glorious celebrations of melody and rhythm. One piece, "Black Unstoppable" approaches the very edge of discordance at moments – even slipping over on occasion – but even then, there is a lightness of spirit that prevents it from being completely unsettling.

The ebullience underlying that piece appears to be an extension of Nicole's character that permeates everything she does on stage. It's like she takes the "play" part of playing music literally, and that means you have fun and never take yourself seriously. I don't know if I've ever seen a performer who smiles as much as she does while performing, and seeing that makes you feel like there is no other place she'd rather be than right here, right now, playing music for you.

For the recording of Live At The Velvet Lounge her band, Black Earth Ensemble, consisted of trumpet, saxophone, guitar, bass, cello, and a vocalist. What I found wonderful was that all of the instruments were incorporated into the music with none serving as window dressing. It's not often that you'll see a cellist given the opportunity to take a lead, or even have their instrument high up in the mix, as was the case on this recording.

They are an amazingly skilled group of players, and it was wonderful to see them interacting and reacting to each other during the improvisational parts of the material. They would all automatically attune to the lead's patterns and work to support him or her instinctively. Obviously they have been playing together for a long time in order for that level of communication to exist, but it also shows a willingness to listen that I don't often see anymore even among Jazz musicians.

One of the things that made watching Black Unstoppable – Live At The Velvet Lounge so enjoyable was the effort that Delmark Records has put into its production. Not only do you get the now standard 5.1 dts. surround sound, the filming and editing job is on a par with discs produced by major studios. They used five cameras in filming the concert and were able to get some wonderful, and unusual footage during various solos. The two that stick out the most for me were a close-up on the lower hand of the saxophone player during his solo that was held for over a minute, and a shot of the cello player taken from below the bridge looking up towards her fingers as she plucked the strings during a solo.

Not only did both of these shots give you a feel for what the musicians were experiencing as they played, they created an intimacy that you don't often get in performance DVDs. These types of techniques are becoming a hallmark of concert disks produced by Delmark. I don't think I'd ever hesitate to recommend a DVD produced by these folk in terms of their technical values, as I've yet to see one where the sound or visual quality has not enhanced my enjoyment of the concert.

Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble Black Unstoppable – Live At The Velvet Lounge is an amazing jazz concert. The music is wonderful and the production values are great – what more could you ask for?

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.