When jazz critic Peter Margasak interviewed Nicole Mitchell for the liner notes he wrote for Awakening, she explained: "I wanted to dig back into the old-school jazz a bit and yet still make room to branch out into never-never land." And that is a perfect description of what the Chicago-based flutist/composer does on this 2011 date, which finds her leading a pianoless quartet that employs Jeff Parker on electric guitar, Harris Bankhead on upright bass and Avreeayl Ra on drums and percussion. Presumably, the "old-school jazz" that Mitchell is referring to is post-bop, while "the never-never land" is avant-garde jazz. Of course, avant-garde jazz comes in many different flavors. Avant-garde jazz can be totally outside (whether it is scorching, dense, brutally atonal free jazz or the spaciness of the AACM), or it can be avant-garde jazz with an inside/outside perspective--and Awakening, like previous Mitchell releases, has an inside/outside perspective. The material that Mitchell composed for Awakening is fairly melodic; "There," "Momentum" and the bluesy "F.O.C.," for example, offer appealing post-bop melodies. "Curly Top" even has a somewhat Horace Silver-ish funkiness. So no, this 64-minute CD is not an exercise in atonality; that isn't the scenario at all. But at the same time, Mitchell and her colleagues don't hesitate to venture into outside playing when they feel like it. They don't venture far outside, but they do venture outside--and while Awakening is more inside than outside, the outside element is an attractive part of the equation. Mitchell, it should be noted, has favored different combinations of musicians on different albums; she is quite proficient when it comes to ensemble playing and arranging, but an intimate quartet format serves her equally well on Awakening. And once again, the Chicago resident excels as both a composer and a soloist.
AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson