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Nicole Mitchell at the 2022 Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music

Nicole Mitchell

Lit & Phil. Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music – Day 2 & 3.

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Two writers, Peter Slavid and AJ Dehany, jointly covered the innovative 2022 NFoJaIM festival for LJN. Links to their other reports below,

“We do it to disrupt the machine” is a statement of liberational sensibility that exists in the continuum of jazz and improvised music as a force for change. It is one which Nicole Mitchell does not make lightly. It informs her diverse visionary outlook as a flautist, vocalist, composer, and multimedia artist. She is strongly associated with the Black Music Ensemble and a veteran luminary of a vast range of situations from jazz with Braxton’s large ensembles to Afro-Futuristic world music driven by the politicised energy she brought to her former role as chair of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago. Quite simply, legend status. 

“We do it to disrupt the machine” also exists in the continuum of her work over decades, in which text and spoken utterance is a characteristic force. It was just one statement she made, stated musically, during her exhilarating solo set on a typically rain-drenched weekend at the Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music. Wesley Stephenson, its organiser since 2017, really surpassed himself in bringing over this artist who burns with a legendary importance. The festival is a feat and feast of folly fostered by a fellowship of longstanding sponsors and friends including Jazz North, BBC Radio 3, and the “spiritual home” of the festival, the Lit & Phil library, who hosted most of the weekend’s events. It’s seriously serious.

Nicole Mitchell in Newcastle. Photo copyright Ken Drew

A shout-out to the festival formed part of Nicole Mitchell’s set’s intimate address to the gathered audience of festival regulars, northern improvised scene heads, and some of the finest musicians around including the ubiquitous John Pope (who played four sets over the weekend at the top his considerable game) and legends Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas who played a good few themselves. The sense of community and collaboration that this festival fosters and exemplifies is a microcosm of the workings of the music the world over, and it happens in Newcastle – by which I mean of course… not London. As well as her solo set and duo with Alexander Hawkins in Newcastle, Mitchell was continuing a de facto mini tour taking in London and Birmingham with Mark Sanders (who himself played with Shifa with Pat Thomas and Rachel Musson to close the festival as only Shifa could). 

“So serious!” she quipped, perhaps partly to check herself, but emphasising the playfulness of her performance, which in her solo set was dominated by her use of a five dollar phone app called Koala. It is a surprisingly effective and versatile sampling and sequencing phone app well suited to the contemporary style in electronic music of ‘chopping’ – it’s been a while now since Aphex Twin and Squarepusher started breaking the back of the techno beat, and since then we’ve explored on the one hand extremes of rhythmic violence exemplified by Venetian Snares and on the other more collaboratively-minded use of electronic chopping and screwing brought by two doyens of the 2022 festival Mariam Rezaei, whose Saturday set with Black Top seemed to focus and distil the big fellas’ energetic bricolage in a superb technical synthesis, and Leafcutter John whose Sunday set with Bex Burch brought a more purely musical sense in a fusion of ancient and modern tendencies.

Some might see an irony in stating “We do it to disrupt the machine” while using a machine to create music, but the Koala software she was using on her phone is a responsive and accessible tool operated with the fingers that is as personal, expressive and individual as any acoustic instrument – potentially more so than the flute for example with its damnable buttons and that impossible mouthpiece that Nicole Mitchell somehow makes sing out in sweeps and swirls  as complex as the most jaw-dropping vocalisations of Norma Winstone. 

Nicole Mitchell with Alexander Hawkins. Photo copyright Ken Drew

Her technique on the flute alone is individual: virtuosically hocketing between notes blown and sung. Mitchell’s solo set was originally meant to precede the debut constellation of Binker Golding, John Pope, Alexander Hawkins and Paul Hessian, but, owing to the intransigency of the British political class, Golding had to elect to either sleep rough on toon or hightail it back to London early, so the schedule changed and Mitchell  ‘headlined’. I for one found it hard to calm down after that quartet’s successful synergy of diverse imaginations of powerful players in a free improvisation of commanding power.

Consequently, it was hard to climb into a different headspace for the first half of Mitchell’s set, and the set itself seemed quite hectic. We want the excitement of knowing it could fall apart at any time but the assurance that it won’t. I’m told she actually lost her samples, and had to remake them all in the half hour before the performance – which many felt absolutely made the set vital and fizzy with nervous energy, but I was glad when the sound settled down a little more, especially when the raw electronically-derived elements eased off into layers of pitched vocals with more of a liberating sense of space, shining light into a polis of glowering clouds and rain.

As Phil Freeman notes in his chapter on Tomeka Reid and Nicole Mitchell in Ugly Beauty (review link below), Mitchell has described the crucial elements of her musical identity as “density” and “layers moving around, sometimes independently of each other” and “dealing with sound as color and energy” which fits both sets, but especially the solo. She says her rhythmic sense is allied to the human heartbeat rather than the metronome, but that would have to be a heart with serious health implications that leaps and skips like a romantic fool in Shakespeare. 

“We do it ‘cos it’s liberating,” is another of the statements she made late in the set, and the exploratory sense of it all was edgily thrilling. It felt unusual to focus on phone electronica rather than the flute so much, but it was a brilliant continuation of what she’s always done. Her modernistic duo with all-round piano genius Alexander Hawkins the next day in some ways played more to her strengths, and the sense of spontaneous composition and creative energy of two players at that level sets the bar far too high for comparison, but in some ways the ‘koala phone set’ was more notable, even if it didn’t achieve the unbelievable superior technical achievements of the duo with Hawkins.

“There is hope in the sunshine” was her final sung comment toward the end of the duo, almost romantic, and somewhat fitting for a typically rainy weekend in the North East, even in a city where we will typically wear just a T-shirt or short skirt to go clubbing in every bitingly damn cold weekend. We do it ‘cos it’s liberating. If we can’t disrupt the machine, at least we can disrupt the damn weather.

AJ Dehany writes about music, art and stuff. 

LINKS: NFoJaIM website

Jon Turney’s Ugly Beauty book review

Peter Slavid’s 2022 Day 1 report

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