Music Reviews from the Staff of the Poison Pie Publishing House


February 6, 2023
Two Mitchells, Two Books & Two Records

Duo With Deer Isle - Nicole Mitchell
Label: Black Earth Music
Catalog #: none
Location: United States
Release Date: January 21, 2023
Media: digital download entry entry



The Mandorla Letters - Nicole Mitchell Gantt
Publisher: Green Lantern Press
Distributor: University of Minnesota Press
ISBN: 978-1-7373028-2-7
Location: Chicago, Illinois & Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States
Release Date: November, 2022
Media: book (hardcover) entry



Keeper of the Code: Paintings 1963—2022 - Roscoe Mitchell
Publisher: Corbett vs Dempsey
Catalog #: CvsD0124
ISBN: 978-1-7378470-3-8
Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States
Release Date: January, 2023
Media: book (softcover)



The Sixth Decade: From Paris to Paris - Art Ensemble of Chicago
Label: RogueArt
Catalog #: none
Location: Paris, France
Release Date: January 20, 2023
Media: double lp, double compact disc, digital download entry entry


The staff of the Poison Pie Publishing House propose to say something (perhaps meaningful, if not, at least harmless) about two recently released books and two recently released recordings from Nicole Mitchell and Roscoe Mitchell. Aside from their last name, Nicole Mitchell and Roscoe Mitchell have a shared history through the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). In fact, Nicole Mitchell appears on both recordings discussed here, though this is not her introduction to the music of Roscoe Mitchell. Far from it, her trio, Artifacts, (with celloist Tomeka Reid and drummer Mike Reed), perform compositions by Roscoe Mitchell on both their albums, Artifacts (482 Music, 2015) and ...And Then There's This (Astral Spirits, 2021). Moreover, Nicole Mitchell also appeared on the earlier album, We Are On The Edge (Pi Recordings, 2019), which first introduced listeners to the expanded reimagining of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

We begin with Duo with Deer Isle, a recording from 2005 in which Nicole Mitchell performs in a "duet" with the collaborator being "the waters, birds, squirrels, the wind and the spirit of the forest in Deer Isle". We think of Nicole Mitchell as a fearless adventurer in the musical world. She is the leader of Black Earth Ensemble and is undaunted by the prospect of interpreting works of Octavia Butler in musical form. On such albums as Maroon Cloud (FPE Records, 2018), her vision and voice ring out polished and pure. On The Secret Escapades of Velvet Anderson (RogueArt, 2014), she tells the tale of Fred Anderson as a superhero narrative. In truth, this is when we started thinking of her as a musical superhero. She is apparently afraid of nothing! On Flowing Stream (Leo Records, 2014), she joined forces with like-minded superheroes, Joëlle Léandre & Thomas Buckner, to push the boundaries of non-idiomatic improvisation into new territory. The evidence of her fearlessness is so abundant that the vulnerability captured on this solo recording from 2005 is all the more surprising. It reveals another side of Nicole Mitchell, her everyday alter ego we suppose, her Clark Kent to the Superwoman whose music we so admire.

In The Mandorla Letters, we are treated to a tour of Nicole Mitchell's inner world through a curated collection in which letters, journal entries, emails and poetry are all interspersed through-out a narrative/essay. There was a hint of Nicole Mitchell's talents as a writer in her essay What Was Feared Lost that appeared in Arcana VIII (Tzadik, 2017). In The Mandorla Letters, the reader is immersed in multiple voices and multiple media, which together coalesce into a fuller account of the possibilities of who Nicole Mitchell is. Like her music, her literary endeavors are not bounded by traditional constraints. In an interview titled Manifest Dreams, conducted by Garrison Fewell (Outside Music, Inside Voices, Saturn University Press, 2014), Nicole Mitchell states, "Creativity is the path of my spiritual development." This declaration captures the essence of the narrative in The Mandorla Letters, where she exercises her creative faculties to form a testament of her spiritual journey.

Roscoe Mitchell's inner world is expressed not only through his music but through his paintings, which he began in the 1960's and resumed with intensity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The artbook, Keeper of the Code: Paintings 1963—2022, collects the paintings of Roscoe Mitchell, the vast majority of which is from the 1960's and then from 2019 forward. We are pretty ignorant of the vocabulary used to describe art and styles of painting and will not put it on display here. However, the paintings are, in general, quite colorful, and painted in a style, which we would call self-taught. We do note that an interview with Roscoe Mitchell threads its way through the book. In some cases there are comments on one particular painting or another. A few of these paintings have appeared on the album covers of records by Art Ensemble of Chicago or other recent Roscoe Mitchell releases. Mitchell describes a process, employed with some of the paintings, in which part of the work is preplanned and the rest "painted on top". It doesn't take a great stretch of the imagination to think of the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago as having a similar combination of planned composition over which the musicians improvised in the moment.

The last quarter of our four-part review is dedicated to the brand new release from the Art Ensemble of Chicago, The Sixth Decade: From Paris to Paris. As noted above, this is the second AEOC album with the dramatically expanded line-up. It was our good fortune to see the debut performance at the 2019 Big Ears Festival. The Sixth Decade captures the group dynamics with much of the same personnel, although very little of the same material. It feels like the presence of Moor Mother dominates this album, though there are instrumental pieces and there are tracks with several other vocalists of dramatically different style. Her voice and her message cannot be ignored and just naturally resonate with the musical message that the Art Ensemble of Chicago has delivered over the past six decades.

The staff of the Poison Pie Publishing House chose to think about these four works together because they came to us at about the same time and because, together, we found an interwoven musical, artistic and literary legacy. These four documents link early paintings from the 1960's to music six decades later and project forward into the future through their collective impact on listeners and readers today.



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