Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds is a virtual musical universe. It was commissioned by the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art and recorded there during its world premiere in 2015, as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the AACM. This work is another wonderfully provocative entry in Mitchell's Afro-Futurist aesthetic. Here, boundaries between literature, philosophy and mysticism, politics and art, coexist in a multivalent dialogue. It also offers, unintentionally, a poignant reminder as to why the AACM's purpose remains vital. The record's title references the second performance work based on Mitchell's sci-fi novella of the same name. The Black Earth Ensemble features her longtime associates -- cellist Tomeka Reid, violinist Renée Baker, Alex Wing on electric guitar and oud, and percussionist Jovia Armstrong -- alongside new ones: Tatsu Aoki (bass, shamisen, taiko) and Kojiro Umezaki (shakuhachi), as well as poet/spoken word artist Avery R. Young, who appears on three of the last four tracks.
While the overall narrative concept concerns a fictional place in a future world, the music is an active exploration of dualities, the concepts of the utopian and the dystopian -- not as binary poles of opposition but as interacting, evolving, and adaptable entities. The liner notes contain her storyline, and the lyrics to her songs that further these notions. Truthfully, none of this is necessary to enjoy Mitchell's music. Carefully mapped out over 74 minutes, Mitchell doesn't merge East and West so much as offer them as parts of a single conversation. Free jazz, contemporary classical music, blues, folk, gospel, and abstract folk articulations slip in and out, they weave through and rub against one another offering openness and engagement without sacrificing their sonorous identities. In opener "Egoes War," gongs, metal percussion, and droning ambience create a rhythmic foundation for a funky bassline and psychedelic wah-wah guitar before Mitchell's flute winds into the swirling dialogue. In "Sub Mission," space bridges the tension between shamisen, violin, and shakuhachi amid sporadic percussion. In "Dance of Many Hands" Mitchell's and Umezaki's flutes play a lithe, bright, contrapuntal melody as Wing's guitar delivers a Nigerian hi-life vamp, supported by circular rhythms on a melange of percussion instruments. "Listening Embrace" is a mini-suite. Cello and drums lay down a hip-hop rhythm as Mitchell's flute captures the groove. Strings answer and bring in the shakuhachi for an atmospheric section before a second theme emerges to open the way for solos by flute, electric guitar, and violin. On the dynamic tracks "Staircase Struggle" and "Timewrap" (both vocal numbers where Young recites/sings Mitchell's words), blues, funk, and gospel themes alternately engage with more abstract arrangements, polyrhythms, and instrumentation as cultures collide, speak, accept, and ultimately balance one another. Mitchell doesn't merely explore on Mandorla Awakening II, she asserts the possible in a language so various, ranging, and utterly beautiful, she cannot help but communicate meaning to anyone willing to encounter it.