Former Chicagoan Nicole Mitchell, now a professor of music and composition at UC Irvine, doesn’t just release albums. She releases stories in musical form. Influenced by the writings of Afrofuturist Octavia Butler as well as a musical melange including rock, jazz, gospel, modern classical, and world music, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds is the latest effort from Mitchell’s long-running Black Earth Ensemble.
On this go-around, the Mitchell is joined by Renée Baker on violin, Tomeka Reid on cello, Alex Wing on guitar and oud, Jovia Armstrong on percussion, Tatsu Aoki on bass, shamisen, and taiko, and Kojiro Umezakion on shakuhachi (end-blown flute). Between Mitchell’s flute, the oud, percussion, and Japanese instruments, Mandorla Awakening II has an Eastern, if not aboriginal tone. Featuring complex and thoughtful compositions, each with its respective share of open-endedness, the album explores a dichotomy between two societies. One is an all too familiar one in which social justice and equality are not to be found, while in the other spirituality, technology, and egalitarianism co-exist peacefully.
Musically, it is not always clear which of these societies is being portrayed. Is the harsh guitar and violin work on Forest Wall Timewalk a representation of the former? Certainly, the chanted spoken word contributions of poet Avery R. Young are a polemic against the lack of progress fighting injustice. In some cases, such as Egoes War, Mitchell appears to juxtapose one on top of the other. Her ability to do so without losing track of a piece’s overall theme is similar to how Sun Ra would combine the harsh and the cosmic. On the other hand, the flute and shakuhachi dueling over a guitar rhythm on Dance of Many Hands is outright joyful.
Not unlike a society, Mitchell’s compositions are at their finest when contributions from all performers are represented. The result is a subtle, world-music-inflected chamber jazz with the occasional assertiveness of the aforementioned Ra. Mitchell is presenting an optimistic possible future – one in which humanity achieves a more just form of civilization. Perhaps that is what we need given the recent rise of dystopias in our popular fiction and politics.