Earth and Ice
Flutist Nicole Mitchell is ferocious, in a nice way
Some musicians have personalities so big, and talents so
formidable, all you can do is sit back and hope your face isn’t
Others, no less big and talented, make you lean forward,
tied to their search for truth as if you are roped together on the side
of a glacier. Instead of blowing you away, they draw you close.
Flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell belongs to the second
group. Mitchell blends intricate compositions, feel-good grooves and
unstructured free-falls into a rough-cut, intensely personal style.
“I go in all directions because there’s no one stopping me,” she said, with a laugh, in a phone interview Friday.
Mitchell’s Ice Crystal Quartet, headlining the Lansing
Jazz Fest Friday, has a silvery timbre she loves to write for. “When you
put the flute and the vibraphone together, it has this clear, crystal
sound that I’ve always loved.”
The Ice Crystal Quartet is the perfect foil for Mitchell’s
long-lived Black Earth Ensemble, a meaty Chicago music machine with
singers, guitar and horns. Mitchell also heads the Black Earth Strings,
with violin and cello, and plays in the free-jazz Indigo Trio and
Frequency, an ethereal avant-garde project using electronics.
She entered a new musical realm June 6 when she premiered
her first orchestral work, “Stealing Freedom,” a celebration of Harriet
Tubman, with the American Composers Orchestra in New York.
She is driven less by ambition than by the fear of getting stale. Life doesn’t stand still, and neither does her music.
“You got your hard times and good times,” she said. “You
get this really ferocious weather, and then you’ll have a nice summer
day like today.”
Ferocious weather is a Chicago specialty, and so is the earthy free-jazz sound in which Mitchell has taken root.
“Chicago is known for honesty,” she said. “We don’t like
stuff all polished and perfect and refined. There’s a grit in the city
that gets inside of the sound.”
Free-jazz crosswinds on the Chicago scale are hardly ever
felt in Lansing, but Mitchell’s sunny aura and positive vibes make
audiences receptive to adventure.
Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Joshua Abrams and
drummer Azreeayl Ra (filling in for the announced drummer, Francisco
Rosaly) have worked with Mitchell for years and know how to roll with
her mercurial demands.
“The musicians I work with are very patient and
accepting,” she said, “but they definitely think, ‘Oh boy, here we go —
five bar phrases, then into some other time signature, repeat this three
times, go back over here,’” she said. “They don’t know if it’s because
I’m a woman, or left-handed, or what. But it’s a lot of fun.”
True to the Chicago free-jazz ethic, mistakes are secondary to the thrill of the quest.
“It’s more interesting to hear someone do something
they’re not really quite sure how to do,” she said. “They’re challenging
themselves and maybe messing up, but there’s a certain aesthetic to
that that might be a little different from New York or L.A.”
With a stack of awards from Down Beat, the Jazz
Journalists Association and even “Chicagoan of the Year 2006” from the
Chicago Tribune, Mitchell is deeply rooted in the American jazz pantheon
at age 45. It’s hard to believe she started with classical training on
flute in grade school and didn’t discover jazz until college.
“It was the sound of the instrument I really related to,” she said. “I didn’t think in terms of the style.”
A new universe opened to her when she took a class in jazz
from trombonist Jimmy Cheatham at the University of California in San
Cheatham took out a piece of paper, wrote, “E-r-i-c-D-o-l-p-h-y” on it, and told her to go to the library.
Dolphy was one of jazz’s most original
minds, a multi-reedman with a sound so distinctive it became known as
the Key of Dolphy. He played with John Coltrane and jammed with birds in
“It was shocking,” Mitchell said. “I thought, ‘Wow, how have I missed this?’”
She called it a “back-door” introduction
to jazz. “Most people get into swing first, or bebop. For me it was Eric
Dolphy and (free jazz legend) Ornette Coleman. After that I explored
She learned a lot about the connection
between music and life from busking on the streets of San Diego. “I
tried to connect with each person that walked by and narrate who they
are, how they walked, through the sound,” she said.
In 1990, Mitchell moved to Chicago and
became a mainstay of the jazz style often called “creative black music,”
a humid tangle of straight-ahead jazz, blues, gospel, African rhythms
and avant-garde music and theater. In 2009-10, she was president of the
Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Chicago’s most
fertile hotbed of jazz activity.
Several recordings with Mitchell’s
various groups followed, including “Xenogenesis Suite,” a dark disc
devoted to the African-American science fiction of Octavia Butler.
Mitchell plans to record “Intergalactic Beings,” a second suite based on
Butler’s work, this year.
Last weekend, a new chapter opened in her
life. Mitchell moved to California to be an assistant professor and
“composer-improviser” at the University of California, Irvine. She got
word of the post only last week.
“They’ve been very gracious in wanting to connect with what I do,” she said. “But Chicago will always be home.”
Now she’s working on her first film
scores, including a documentary on Chicago’s historic Johnson Publishing
Co. headquarters, home of Jet and Ebony magazine and the first Chicago
skyscraper to house an African-American-owned company.
Another orchestral premiere is on the way
in January 2012, and a fling with Cuban music is in her seemingly
infinite queue of musical adventures.
“I have a fear of being static,” she said. “A song is a world. Another song, I can have a completely different set of rules, or just break the rules. Why limit yourself?”
Nicole Mitchell’s Ice Crystal Quartet
7:30-9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 6, MessageMakers Stage
Clinic: “What is free jazz improvisation and composition?”
5:30 Saturday, 1210 Turner
Clarsach, no chaser
Maeve Gilchrist brings ‘harp-y’ music to Jazz Fest
You can’t get further from the cliché of
light harp music than Maeve Gilchrist’s favorite jazz legend,
larger-than-life, hulking bassist Charles Mingus.
Mingus hectored, prodded and, on occasion, physically assaulted his musicians to keep them in the musical moment.
“I find his compositions so full of life,” Gilchrist said. “I love the idea of him.”
Gilchrist probably won’t throw a punch at
her frequent musical partner, bassist Aidan O’Donell, when they perform
an unusual harp-bass duo set at Lansing’s Jazz Fest, but there might be
some urgent eye contact.
“To me, improvisation is fantastic
because it allows conversation between musicians,” Gilchrist said. “I
loved that about Mingus’ work. It was so conversational.”
In traditional Celtic music, jazz or
folk, Gilchrist has always been drawn to the strong personalities like
Mingus, fusion guitarist John McLaughlin and soul powerhouse Nina
Growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland, she
soaked up a wide variety of sounds from her father, a folk music critic
with a killer collection of record albums.
“Joni Mitchell is the person I listen to
most,” Gilchrist said. “A lot of the artists that have really inspired
me maintained their own voice throughout, but constantly moved and
developed and tried new things.”
It’s no accident that Mitchell was also an admirer of Mingus and dedicated an album to the jazz master.
“Both of them collaborated with different people, were willing to play of their comfort zone,” Gilchrist said.
When Gilchrist was young, she took in the vibrant jazz scene in Edinburgh and Glasgow, each with its own jazz festival.
“I remember hearing (Detroit-born singer)
Sheila Jordan in this tiny little Scottish dive bar, playing with a
Scottish pianist, Brian Kellock,” Gilchrist recalled. “It really struck
Gilchrist was happy studying clarsach
(Gaelic harp) and classical piano at the City of Edinburgh Music School,
but her life opened wide when Boston’s Berklee College of Music made a
World Scholarship Tour stop in Dublin in 2002. One of Gilchrist’s
teachers urged her to audition and, at 17, she found herself in a mad
whirl of musical stimuli at Berklee. She studied South Indian music,
harp improvisation and straight-up American jazz, and was galvanized by
the energetic harping traditions of Colombia and Venezuela.
“In the Western world, the harp is
associated with this ethereal, airy, feminine sound,” she said. “In
South America, it plays a much more driving, fiery role.”
Although Gilchrist came to Berklee as a vocal major, she soon shifted emphasis to the harp.
“As soon as I was there, I realized there
were a million fantastic jazz singers in the world, and I wasn’t one of
them,” she said.
After Berklee, Gilchrist rediscovered her Celtic roots and set about blending her musical passions into a coherent voice.
On jazz harp, Gilchrist has very few
predecessors. In the 1960s and 1970s, Detroit-born Dorothy Ashby pounded
out some rocking jazz and R&B harp grooves that are still sampled
by hip hop artists. The most conspicuous harpist in jazz was Alice
Coltrane, also from Detroit, who was very active around the same time as
“Musically, I found Alice Coltrane’s
piano playing more interesting,” Gilchrist said. “The harp was very much
a texture in the recording, although its presence and beauty was
Gilchrist wants to do more than weave
atmospherics on the harp, but neither is she interested in muscling
through straight-ahead jazz licks, which don’t work on harp anyway.
“One can practice (John Coltrane’s)
‘Giant Steps’ and other bebop heads, and manage them, but they’re not
going to sound great,” she said. “They’re going to sound like a muted
Instead, she favors originals that blend folkish forms, occasional vocals and jazz-style improvisation.
“I love traditional jazz, but I’m trying
to find music that’s a vehicle for improvisation and fits well on the
harp — music that is ‘harp-y.’”
One of Gilchrst’s models in her quest for
a distinctive sound is another unclassifiable jazz musician, guitarist
Bill Frisell. “He spans so many musical worlds, including Americana and
country,” Gilchrist said.
O’Donnell, Gilchrist’s musical partner
Friday, grew up in Scotland and absorbed the lively jazz scene there
until he moved to New York at 25. They have played together for three
years, often in an extended chamber format with cello and violin.
“He knows me and he knows my playing inside out,” Gilchrist said. “It’s a delight playing with someone you can rely on.”
7:30-9 p.m., MessageMakers Stage
From the streets to the stage
Dr. E belts out a message of redemption
“This is my story, this is my song,” goes the hymn “Blessed Assurance.”
If there ever was a singer whose story and song are one,
it’s Dr. E., who will take the Jackson National Stage at the Lansing
Jazz Fest Friday night.
By day, Elaine Richardson is a professor
of literacy studies at The Ohio State University. By night, Dr. E. is a
vocal healer in the mama-don’t-take-no-mess mode of Nancy Wilson, Gladys
Knight and Patti LaBelle. That’s two doctorates, by my count.
Richardson’s personal redemption is burned into her
jubilant music. She wants her story to be known. Born into poverty and
raped as a child, she ended up a teen prostitute, junkie and alcoholic
on the streets of Cleveland.
“I didn’t have hope for myself. You just don’t feel like you have a future, or can do any better,” she said.
She hit bottom while recovering in the hospital after the birth of her second child.
“I didn’t know who I was pregnant by, I was on drugs, I
didn’t know if the baby was drug-addicted,” she said. “I wanted them to
lock me up. I thought that was the only way I could get help.”
She got a visitor in the hospital from Second Chance, a
program for sexually exploited women run by Andrew Edwards, a professor
at Cleveland State University.
“She held my hand and kept talking to me. I was worthy, a
good human being, and had made a lot of bad choices. She kept talking to
me and holding my hand and I promised her I would try.”
From there, Richardson followed the Alcoholics Anonymous
formula of getting over yourself, surrendering to a higher power and
taking it one day at a time. Her devoted mother “dusted me off and
supported whatever I wanted to do,” starting with going back to school.
The streets were behind her, but the books brought new problems.
“I was desperate to succeed in school, but had a hard time
as an undergraduate learning how to write academic discourse,” she
said. “People told me my black dialect and Jamaican Creole were coming
out in my writing.”
Another turning point came when a teacher showed
Richardson a book by Michigan State University professor Geneva
Smitherman, “Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America.”
Smitherman’s research into the history and development of
African-American English, going back to its origins in West Africa, was a
“It was not from a perspective that African people are
ignorant and illiterate,” Richardson said. “These are the ways languages
develop naturally anyway, when cultures come together.”
Richardson began to understand the deep affinity between America’s language diversity and its multi-ethnic musical melange.
But music’s time hadn’t come yet for her. When she kept
leaving MSU on weekends to sing gigs in the Cleveland area, Smitherman
held her feet to the fire.
“She would say, ‘You singin’ with a band? What? You better
sing up in that library.’ It used to make me mad, but deep inside I
knew she was the right person for me. Besides, she was a lot of fun. She
is the reason I have a Ph.D. today.”
While at MSU, Richardson scratched her musical itch by
writing songs, developing as a composer, finding ways to tell her story
As soon as the Ph.D. was done, music surged to the
forefront. Before the bad times in her teens, Richardson grew up singing
the songs of Wilson and Knight and LaBelle at home and played violin in
grade school, before what she calls her “wayward years.”
Watching her get in on in performance, exuding music from
every pore, you get the feeling she would have found her way to music if
she’d grown up on Mars.
“People vibe with the sounds of nature, even if the sound
of nature is police sirens and ambulances,” she said. “People figure out
a way to groove, somehow.”
After her time at MSU, she really had something to sing
about. The dramatic arc of her life, with crucial uplift from people
like Edwards and Smitherman, made her want to shine a light for others.
“Even when my music is not uptempo, it comes from the
perspective of gratefulness, someone who’s happy to be alive and living a
dream,” she said.
Before every performance, she prays to the Creator to help her “get free.”
“If you can get free and get out of yourself and let the
vibe come through you, it’s so much better than any drug I ever did, or
anything I ever smoked.”
9-10:30 p.m., Jackson National Stage
Clinic: My Music and My Life
5-6 p.m., 1210 Turner
Jazz Fest 2011 Schedule of EventsMessageMakers Stage (South Stage)
Friday, Aug. 5
4:30 p,m, Jeff Shoup Quartet featuring Tamara Mayers
7:30 p.m. Dave Sharp’s Secret Seven
10:30 p.m. The Tyrone Johnson Funk Fusion Group
Saturday, Aug. 6
12:45 p.m. Saginaw Area Youth Jazz Ensemble
2 p.m. Lanswingers & LCC Jazz Band
3 p.m. Ray Kamalay
5 p.m. Marcus Elliot Quartet
7:30 p.m. Nicole Mitchell’s Ice Crystal Quartet
10:30 p.m. Los Gatos
Jackson National Stage (North Stage)
Friday, Aug. 5
6:30 p.m. Lisa Smith
9 p.m. Dr. E
Saturday, Aug. 6
4 p.m. Peter Nelson Quartet
6 p.m. Elden Kelly & the Global Roots Jazz Collective
9 p.m. Straight Ahead
Mica Stage (Lot 56)
Friday, Aug. 5
7:30 p.m. Maeve Gilchrist
Saturday, Aug. 6
1 p.m. Children’s Ballet Theatre
2 p.m. Happendance’s Community Dance Project
5 p.m. PC Blues
6 p.m. Jeff Shoup Drum Clinic
7 p.m. Cory Allen Guitar Clinic
8 p.m. Pete Siers Music Clinic
Friday, Aug. 5
5 p.m. Dr. E: “My Music & My Life”
6:15 p.m. Elden Kelly Guitar Clinic
Saturday, Aug. 6
4 p.m. Marian Hayden Clinic
5:30 p.m. Nicole Mitchell Clinic: “What is Free Jazz Improvisation and Composition?”
6:30 p.m. “Detroit Music Before Motown: A Survey of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-1960”
The Other Stage – 1215 Turner
Friday, Aug. 5
6 p.m. Friday Night Open Jam
Saturday, Aug. 6
4 p.m. Roger Jones Trio