Thursday, May 02, 2013

CD Review: Nicole Mitchell's Ice Crystal - Aquarius

Nicole Mitchell's Ice Crystal

On one hand, it doesn't seem right to hear a band with a flute-and-vibes instrumentation and immediately compare it to the collaborations of Eric Dolphy and Bobby Hutcherson. The latter two are great artists to evoke, but it feels like it goes for the easy description. Then again, Aquarius does just that on the back cover, amending it by saying the album gives the reference "a Chicago twist." So it's not just me.

Flutist Nicole Mitchell has written for a number of bands over the last several years, including a string quartet, a project inspired by modern science fiction with intense vocals (that worked where others failed) and smaller groups. Aquarius, she says, is the first album in a while where she simply wrote tunes without an overarching concept, and as such it comes off like more of a straight ahead band with themes and solos - albeit ones that avoid anything standard in that situation.

Jason Adasiewicz provides the vibes, and even he seems to be approaching his instrument a little differently than usual. Known for leaning on the sustain pedal and letting harmonies spill into each other, he keeps it dry on several of the album's early tracks, providing strong punctuation with metallic clunks. There are other moments too where he uses his instrument for dreamy textures, like "Today, Today" and "Above the Sky," using the sustain.

Joshua Abrams (bass) has worked on several of Mitchell's albums and it's clear why he's her bassist of choice. Even when her writing doesn't follow a straightforward pattern, he manages to find a way to doing so solid walking behind her and Adasiewicz. His bowing on the title track sounds especially compelling, pulling out heavy double-stops, screeches and rapid lines. During that section, Frank Rosaly's percussive noises sneak up in the background, and it can be hard to tell if it's him or some noise in the next room is blending in appropriately with the disc. But that's Rosaly's skill in all of his projects, which is on display throughout the album, adding a solid backbeat to "Sunday Afternoon" or acting more pointillistic in "Diga Diga." Both situations make a strong performance.

Mitchell, who relocated to California a year or two ago, still has an excellent rapport with her Chicago compatriots. Her writing feels infectious from the opening notes of "Aqua Blue" until the closing "Fred Anderson," which features Calvin Gantt doing a spoken word homage to the title subject, the saxophonist/club owner/overall guru of Chicago, who passed away in 2010. (It works because the words are direct and straightforward without getting flowery.) Aquarius may be an album of unrelated tunes, but each has a distinct personality, shifting gears after the previous one, resulting in a consistent set. While the first half gets into more free territory, with some muscular flute exclamations in the extended "Aquarius," the second half feels a little more in the pocket, while maintaining the same level of action the whole time. Mitchell talks in the liner notes about all the Chicago touchstones that have shaped her (not the least of which is tenure in the AACM). It's clear that sense of musical adventure is still part of her musical DNA.

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