Friday, December 28, 2007

Black Unstoppable

Black Unstoppable: Live at the Velvet Lounge
By Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble
Delmark DVD

For whatever reasons, jazz flutists, or flautists, have crossed over to wider popularity at a greater rate than other instrumentalists, as witnessed by the popularity attained by Herbie Mann, Hubert Laws, Paul Horn, Bud Shank, and Charles Lloyd in the 1960’s and 1970’s. If the decade is due for a new breakout flautist, Nicole Mitchell looks like a promising candidate, as documented live in concert at Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge on the new DVD Black Unstoppable.

In some ways Mitchell has greater affinity with more adventurous jazz flutists, like Eric Dolphy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and her onetime teacher James Newton. Yet her music has soulful and spiritual qualities that should enjoy a wider audience. In truth, Mitchell’s music can be heard in the funky-spiritual avant-garde bag that produced Pharaoh Sanders and Leon Thomas’s surprise hit, “The Creator Has a Master Plan.”

The title of the first tune, “The Creator Has Other Plans for Me,” even echoes the Sanders classic. It functions as a nice introduction to the Black Earth Ensemble, with a short but evocative cello preface from Tomeka Reid, and featuring swinging solos from Mitchell on flute, David Young on flugelhorn, and Marcus Evans on drums. It also gives viewers a tour of some of the Velvet Lounge memorabilia during Evans’ solo.

The stylistic similarities to the funkier Pharaoh are most pronounced on the vocal tracks featuring Ugochi Nwaogwugwu. “Life Wants You to Love” is something of a calypso, showcasing the tenor of David Boykin and the leader’s flute. “Love Has No Boundaries” is a soulful duet between Nwaogwugwu and trumpeter Young, who also solos impressively with the cup mute. Guitarist Jeff Parker gets to have his say as well on a very groovy track.

The third vocal, the concluding “Thanking the Universe,” has the same spiritual groove. Dedicated by Mitchell to Boykin, her “soul mate,” it appropriately features a blistering tenor solo. Despite the free excursions, most of Unstoppable, particularly the vocal tracks are accessible to the point of being downright crowd pleasing. Ironically, the freest, most challenging composition is probably the title track.

It is unfortunate that Oprah Winfrey seems to hate jazz, because Mitchell would seem to be a perfect fit for her audience, as a strong instrumentalist and composer, whose music offers a message of universal love and spiritual empowerment. She is also a prodigious bandleader, impressive particularly since women in jazz still face challenges, even today. She is even based in Chicago and now recording for the venerable Chicago independent label Delmark.

Regardless of the avant-garde aspects of Mitchell’s work, there is no reason why her music could not reach a wide popular audience. She swings hard and she her words speak to concerns of the soul, but she is certainly not middle-brow, like say Chris Botti, whom Chicago’s famous host seems to prefer. Too bad for those loyal viewers. Mitchell is an exciting talent, well worth checking out in Unstoppable.