Arts Desk

Spherical Development: A Conversation With Nicole Mitchell

Nicole MitchellWhile the Kennedy Center can proudly claim to have presented a broad spectrum of female artists in its annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, the avant-garde hasn't been greatly represented there. That changes this year. As part of Artistic Advisor for Jazz Jason Moran's efforts at more diverse and daring programming, the festival has not one, but two members of Chicago's storied avant-garde organization, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM): pianist Amina Claudine Myers performs tonight, and flutist Nicole Mitchell on Saturday.

Mitchell is a particularly interesting choice. A former AACM president, she is also one of the most prolific of its members, with several different ensembles that each move in a different direction. Ice Crystals, a quartet project whose main thrust is to explore the textural mix of flute and vibraphone (in this case with vibist Jason Adasiewicz), is one of her more traditional jazz aspects. She spoke to Washington City Paper about the balance of that style with her others, the inspiration for the band's name, and the increasing scope of Kennedy Center jazz.

Washington City Paper: Is it fair to say that texture is really the main component of Ice Crystals?

Nicole Mitchell: Yeah, that was my attraction to creating that project. From the beginning, when I started playing jazz, I was immediately attracted to the blending of flute with the vibraphone; it was the matter of finding the right person to do that with. When I met Jason [Adasiewicz] in 2005 as part of Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star project, I was like, "I think this one's gonna work!" (Laughs.)

WCP: The name "Ice Crystals" is such a beautiful visual analogue to the sound. Was that the intention of that name, or was there more to it?

NM: Oh, definitely. It took me a while to come up with a name, which is probably why people thought it was a new group; we played as the Nicole Mitchell Quartet for a long time, but I knew that that wasn't going to work because I might have another quartet with different instrumentation. I really kind of searched and thought long and hard about the right name for that sound. I thought of "water," too, but there's the sound of ice because of the vibes.

But especially because the project is based in Chicago, where Lake Michigan—my favorite time to go to the lake in Chicago is in the winter time, when there's been a lot of snow. And of course there's nobody else out there, but the water, if we've had rain and then it snowed, it makes these sculptures of ice. I used to love to go out to see that stuff, and thinking of that made me think of the name.

WCP: You compare this project with the sound that [avant-garde flutist] Eric Dolphy and [vibraphonist] Bobby Hutcherson made together, which is surprising because the direction of Ice Crystals and your 2011 project Awakening head in a much more traditional direction than is usual for you.

NM: Yes! I look at my progress, my development, as moving in more of a spherical way than down a line. I'll reach in one direction, and then for the next project in another direction! So it makes this kind of arc. For example, at the same time as Ice Crystals was coming out, my first solo flute record, Engraved in the Wind, came out—most people would probably think that that has very little to do with jazz at all! (Laughs.) Even though most of it is improvised, it's coming from more of a free improvisation place.

But at the same time I have this love for the tradition, and want to be a part of it—not only honoring it, but contributing to it. I like this kind of jumping around and meeting all my interests, but it might confuse people sometimes! (Laughs.)

WCP: Will we hear elements of those other projects at the Kennedy Center?

NM: Oh, no. It will be only Ice Crystals, because I feel that I am focusing it on right now in terms of my ensemble groups. People are more familiar with my Black Earth Ensemble—which is my first group, my oldest group, and we've done a lot of different stylistic projects with Black Earth Ensemble. Ice Crystals is more of a fixed group, fixed personnel and instrumentation. So with this concert, I just want to celebrate that. I feel really happy about the release, and I've done so much work in Europe and feel that my performing that I've done in the U.S. has been limited. Of course I've worked in New York, and a lot in Chicago, but I haven't had a lot of opportunity to tour in the U.S. And you know, I love my country too! I would love to be able to have the opportunity to share what I do more, and to discover all these wonderful places that we have right here.

So I'm hoping with this group I can do that. We have a short tour set up in the fall, into Canada and maybe Northern California, and then I'd like to bring it to New York. So if attention to this group allows people to hear it more—Black Earth Ensemble is a bigger group, so there's not as much opportunity to do that.

Meanwhile I'm still doing premieres as a composer. I just did one a few weeks ago in New York with a chamber orchestra, and three vocalists, and electronics. It was a full, evening-length piece that was through-composed, but with improvisers. So that's what I keep myself busy doing.

WCP: Is this your first Kennedy Center appearance?

NM: My first one. I'm very excited. It'll actually be my D.C. premiere—I haven't even played the clubs in D.C.!

WCP: It's incredible to suddenly have two AACM members at a Kennedy Center festival. Is this a Jason Moran thing, do you think?

NM: (Laughs.) Well, I definitely think that his presence there has broadened the scope of the legacy that they're presenting. And I take it very, very seriously to be invited to the Kennedy Center; I think it's one of our greatest forums for jazz in this country. I'm very excited about it, and very honored to be invited.

Mitchell performs Saturday, May 18 at 7 p.m. at the Kennedy Center. Tickets $38.

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