Some musicians are content with playing the same type of music over and over again. Once they discover a sound that works for them or something that sells they stick with it. While they might mix it up slightly every so often so they don't get board, they'll usually stay within the perimeters they have defined for themselves. Once in a while though you'll get a musician who is never content with just doing one thing and has other projects operating on the side while keeping their main one going. While a lot of people who front their own band also play with others, not many play in other people's bands and lead two completely different bands as well.
Jazz flautist Nicole Mitchell is probably best known for her work with her jazz band Black Earth Ensemble. However they're the only band she's been leading over the last few years. Now, for the first time, she and the Black Earth Strings can be heard on CD. Renegades, their first disc, was released in May on Delmark Records and it shows why Mitchell is considered one of today's foremost jazz musicians.
With all 16 tracks on the disc being composed and arranged by Mitchell we get a good idea of not only her creativity but her versatility as both a performer and a composer. On Renegades you'll hear everything from the discordance of free-form avant-garde to the echoes of 19th century spirituals as Mitchell explores the meaning of the CD's title. In some ways their music is a bit of a renegade itself, for when was the last time you heard of a jazz quintet made up of flute, violin, cello, bass, and drums/percussion? Mitchell is something of a renegades on her own anyway, for how many women do you know leading jazz ensembles today who play something other than piano or merely sing?
Right from the opening track, "Crossroads", you know you're in for something different from what you're used to, as the song opens with the faint echoes of a bell like instrument over which the violin and cello start chopping out a staccato beat. They are joined by a drum being played in counter point and the sound builds with Mitchell's flute swirling in on top. Just when we are beginning to become comfortable with the swirling of the flute, it falls away, as do the rest of the instruments until we're left with only the drum speaking its insistent rhythm. However, it's not the drum that ends up ending the song – as the music builds once more to a crescendo of flute and strings to end with a bang and not a fade to black.
I'm sure the majority of us think of the flute as a lovely melodic instrument and associate stringed instruments like the violin and cello with symphonic elegance. Well you're going to be in for a big surprise from these renegades as they take these instruments to places you've not heard them taken before. Renee Baker on violin and viola, Tomeka Reid on cello, Josh Abrams on bass, and Shirazette Tinnin on drums and percussion take their lead from Mitchell's flute in pushing the envelop of what their instruments are capable of. They never quite go over the edge into discordance, but on occasion they skirt so closely that you can hear they are only a step away from falling from music into noise.
However it's that ability to keep away from the edge, not falling over the precipice into complete disharmony, that makes them so exciting to listen to. The title track of the disc, "Renegades" is a perfect example of this as almost every bar skirts with leaving behind what we would call music and descending into chaos. Yet no matter how disjointed it may sound in places, a sense of melody and tune can always be discerned. Its an incredible explosion of sound and fury expressing their willingness to break free of all boundaries and take chances that very few others who have played their instruments have ever taken.
In contrast to the wildness of "Renegades", are songs like the ninth track on the disc, "Wade", inspired by the old spiritual, "Wade In The Water". In the liner notes Mitchell talks of how that old song was instructions for run away slaves to make sure they waded deep in water so they could escape the hounds sent out to track them down. There's a story in the music of this song; the story of people trying to make their way to freedom. Listening we can hear their exhaustion and stress; you can almost see them creeping slowly through the night as they keep their eyes and ears open for any signs of their hunters. Somehow the five instruments in Black Earth Strings manage to bring to life the whole experience of what it was like to be on the run; the fear of recapture and the hope for freedom
Aside from the quality of their musicianship, what also amazed me about the performances on this disc was the diversity of sound that these five musicians were able to create. I wasn't really quite sure what to expect from a quintet made up of these instruments, but I didn't think they would have been able to create the variety of sounds and atmospheres that are on this disc. I've always thought of violins, cellos, and flutes as being rather singular sounding; not capable of creating a great deal of diversity. So I was constantly being surprised at what I heard from song to song in terms of the sounds and textures generated by their playing.
I've heard any number of modern and classical string quartets and ensembles. From the modern sounds of the Kronos Quartet playing Jimi Hendrix to traditional groups playing a typical repertoire of Beethoven and Bach. However I can honestly say I've never heard anything quite like Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Strings before. A fusion of classical, jazz, contemporary composition, avant-garde jazz, and traditional rhythms bound together by a spirit of adventure and a willingness to take chances make them one of the more exciting and interesting combos of musicians that you're liable to hear in any genre. If you're willing to be taken places by music you've never gone before than these people are more than willing to be your guides. It's an experience unlike any you've ever had before and one well worth having.