Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble

Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler

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Xenogenesis Suite is a very strong and convincing proposition from flutist Nicole Mitchell. Moving, intricate, and immediate, this album marks a paradigm shift in her work as a composer, toward a much more personal voice. This piece is based on Octavia Butler's novel Dawn, a reflection on how human beings can adapt to inhuman circumstances: "If anything you had known is no longer, and you were placed in a seamless space, what would you feel?" (from the track notes). The main (and sole) character, a woman, goes through feelings of fear (of the unknown), withdrawal (from her past), anguish (at what is to come), repulsion (at alien life forms), and resolution (to start anew). Singer Mankwe Ndosi portrays these emotions with stunning beauty, mostly without any lyrics, her voice often featured as the main instrument through the nine movements. Mitchell's music is at times expressionistic (the dark "Sequence Shadows" or the uplifting "Dawn of a New Life," which has echoes of the ecstatic side of John Coltrane) and at times more abstract. The score leaves ample room for improvisation shaped into group macro-movements, but there are also plenty of written-down passages, from ostinati to riffs, fragile melodies, and ominous harmonic progressions. The opening "Wonder," "Sequence Shadows," and "Adrenalin" are the album's highlights, maybe simply because they stray further away from the Art Ensemble of Chicago's ethos. Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble displays excellent musicianship, but the focus is on a group sound and the score, not on individual prowess (Ndosi's vocals aside). Even Mitchell's flute remains discreet. Then again, Mitchell has never been about flashiness. Xenogenesis Suite is the kind of album that gains depth with each listen.

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