Nicole Mitchell is an award-winning flutist, composer, bandleader, recording artist, and educator. She has been an integral part of the avant-jazz and experimental music scenes since the early '90s. She is also a former president of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). On her first three albums with her Black Earth Ensemble (Vision Quest, 2001; Afrika Rising, 2002; Hope, Future and Destiny, 2004) on the Dreamtime label she established with saxophonist David Boykin, she garnered the attention of avant-jazz aficionados, but also the mainstream jazz press. Mitchell won Downbeat's Rising Star award between 2004 and 2011 consecutively, while in the latter two years she took home the Best Flute distinction. With 2007's Black Unstoppable, she began an ongoing, occasional relationship with Chicago's Delmark label. These early dates established Mitchell as one of the more original flutists and musical conceptualists in jazz and improvised music. With 2007's Xenogenesis Suite (Firehouse 12), she revealed her personal musical language on the first of several works of Afrofuturism inspired by the novels of Octavia Butler in particular. Subsequent titles include 2010's Intergalactic Beings; her debut for FPE, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds, in 2016; and 2020's Earthseed, in collaboration with poet and conceptual performance artist Lisa E. Harris.
Mitchell was born in Syracuse, New York in 1967, and her family relocated to Anaheim, California when she was nine years old. There she began to study music, first piano and then viola, before switching to flute as a teen. Classically trained while in high school, she played in school and local youth orchestras. She matriculated to the University of California in San Diego as a math major, but after taking a jazz class with Jimmy Cheatham, she became obsessed with the music, and in 1987, after two years, transferred to Oberlin College, where she was disappointed and frustrated by the program and by a professor who told her constantly there was no room for her pursuit of jazz with her instrument and harangued her to play saxophone instead.
Mitchell moved again in 1990, this time to Chicago. She worked for Third World Publishing — a publishing house that focuses on black culture — and busked on the streets. Her travels through the city brought her into contact with members of the AACM (she joined in 1995), and she began playing with a female ensemble called Samana. Mitchell stood out; she was soon being asked to lend her flute to projects by musicians like David Boykin, Ed Wilkerson, Daniel Givens, and Capital D, to name a few. Near the end of the decade, she began teaching at Chicagoland institutions like Northern Illinois University, Chicago State University, Northeastern Illinois University, Wheaton College, and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Mitchell issued Vision Quest, her debut with her band the Black Earth Ensemble (featuring violinists Savoir Faire and Edith Yokley, bassist Darius Savage, and percussionists Hamid Drake and Avreeayl Ra), in 2001. Vision Quest received uniformly positive reviews from the Chicago music press. A year later, her Afrika Rising arrived on Dreamtime Records (a label she established with Boykin), and her press coverage was expanding, with national press outlets beginning to notice her as well. Her first truly large-scale work was 2004's Hope, Future and Destiny; the score for a large multi-disciplinary performance work for over 50 participants in a multitude of media forms, its studio cast including Boykin, Tomeka Reid, Josh Abrams, and Tony Herrera, to name a few. In 2006, The Chicago Tribune voted her Chicagoan of the Year. Mitchell moved her Black Earth Ensemble to Delmark for Black Unstoppable in 2007, which was celebrated internationally for its bold new music and its leader's technical gifts as an instrumentalist and composer. In addition to the aforementioned players, guitarist Jeff Parker joined the ever-evolving ensemble.
A year later, Mitchell issued the landmark Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler for Firehouse 12. The work was commissioned by Chamber Music America and premiered at Vision Festival XII in New York City. It was based on Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy of novels and was the first of Mitchell's works to be regarded under the umbrella of Afrofuturism, though all of her previous work had also been informed by its tenets. Arriving in 2009, Anaya was her debut album for France's Rogue Art label — she had performed in Europe extensively by that time — which has since become a periodic home for her work. That year, she also created Honoring Grace: Michelle Obama for the Jazz Institute of Chicago. In 2010, Mitchell released Renegades on Delmark, her first recorded collaboration with her Black Earth Strings, a chamber group comprising cellist Tomeka Reid, gimbri and bass player Josh Abrams, violinist/violist Renée Baker, and drummer/percussionist Shirazette Tinnin. 2010 also marked the first of eight consecutive years Mitchell won Top Flutist of the Year from both the Jazz Journalists Association and the Downbeat Critics Poll. She also released a quartet date featuring pianist Craig Taborn, saxophonist Boykin, and drummer Chad Taylor entitled Emerald Hills for Rogue Art.
Mitchell was prolific in 2011. The Ethiopian Princess Meets the Tantric Priest, the debut from the Indigo Trio (with Drake and Harrison Bankhead), and Before After with Joëlle Léandre and Dylan van der Schyff, were both released by Rogue Art, while Awakening, a quartet date with Bankhead, Parker, and drummer Avreeayl Ra appeared from Delmark. In addition, her composition Flight for Freedom for Creative Flute and Orchestra: A Tribute to Harriet Tubman was premiered with the Chicago Composers' Orchestra in December. She was also a recipient of the prestigious Alpert Award in the Arts. The following year, the flutist released two collaborative albums: Arc of O (For Improvisers, Chamber Orchestra and Electronics) with an_ARCHE NewMusic Ensemble (a Polish chamber group) and Three Compositions with Roscoe Mitchell, both on Rogue Art. She was also a member of the first class of recipients of the Doris Duke Artist Awards.
In 2013, Mitchell debuted her quartet Ice Crystal on the album Aquarius for Delmark. The band also featured vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, drummer Frank Rosaly, and Abrams on bass. Engraved in the Wind, Mitchell's first-ever solo flute recording, was also offered by Rogue Art. In 2014, the label released The Secret Escapades of Velvet Anderson (a tribute to mentor and saxophonist Fred Anderson), offering her flute in a quartet setting with Taborn, Boykin, and Taylor. The same year, Intergalactic Beings, an archival Black Earth Ensemble date from 2010 — also drawn from the writing of Butler — was issued by FPE; it marked the beginning of an ongoing relationship with the label, which has released some of her most adventurous work.
Mitchell, by then a professor of music at UC Irvine, helped to design the 2014 graduate studies program "Integrated Composition, Improvisation and Technology" (ICIT). She was also commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture and the Royaumont Foundation for the development and French tour of Beyond Black, a collaboration with kora master Ballaké Sissoko and the Black Earth Ensemble. A year later, she was commissioned by the French American Jazz Exchange for the work Moments of Fatherhood, featuring the Black Earth Ensemble and the Parisian chamber group Ensemble Laborintus; it premiered at the Sons d'Hiver jazz festival in January 2015. Later that year, Artifacts (with Reid and Mike Reed) was released by 482, while Moments of Fatherhood appeared from Rogue Art in 2016.
Early the following year, Mitchell released Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds on FPE. An original work, it was commissioned by Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art and cut two years earlier at its world premiere at the venue. Its concept, while reflecting the undeniable influence of Butler, was original. Mitchell used various musics including modern free jazz, gospel, rock, and contemporary classical, and engaged several folk styles from across the globe in a metaphorical narrative that used classic dualities to ask the question: "What is progress?" The Black Earth Ensemble for this performance included Baker, Reid, Alex Wing on guitars and oud; percussionist Jovia Armstrong; Tatsu Aoki on bass, shamisen, and taiko; Kojiro Umezaki on shakuhachi flute; and, on three of the final four tracks, Chicago-based spoken word artist Avery R. Young contributed vocals. The same year, she collaborated with poet Haki Madhubuti on Liberation Narratives, along with drummer Tomas Fujiwara, cellist Tomeka Reid, and bassist Harrison Bankhead, among others. Mitchell assembled a drummer-less quartet with Reid, pianist Aruan Ortiz, and vocalist Fay Victor for a performance at National Sawdust in Brooklyn as part of John Zorn's Stone Commissioning Series. The group performed and recorded her eight-part suite entitled Maroon Cloud, a paean to the human gift of imagination and its ability to foster resistance in our dystopian times. The completed recording was released in August 2018 on FPE Records.
Mitchell left UC Irvine to accept the role of director of jazz studies in the University of Pittsburgh's Deitrich School. In 2020, she returned to FPE with Earthseed, a collaborative outing with poet and musician Lisa Harris. For this album, she focused on Butler's dystopian Parable novels — Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents — which warned readers about the disintegration of American culture and infrastructure due to tyrannical rule. Earthseed was issued during the early summer of 2020, amid weeks of nationwide protests following the death of unarmed citizen George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Mitchell and Harris further enlisted vocalist Julian Otis, violinist Zara Zaharieva, cellist Tomeka Reid, trumpeter/electronicist Ben LaMar Gay, and percussionist Avreeayl Ra to complete their ensemble. ~ Thom Jurek