Graded on a Curve: Nicole Mitchell & Lisa E. Harris, EarthSeed

Born in Syracuse, NY, with time spent in California and Chicago, Nicole Mitchell is a flautist, composer, bandleader, and teacher. Hailing from Houston, TX, Lisa E. Harris is an interdisciplinary artist, performer, composer, and singer of striking, often operatic, power and feeling. The new release EarthSeed is their collaboration, inspired by the works of the late, very great and remarkably prescient science-fiction novelist Octavia E. Butler, and featuring Mitchell’s long-running Black Earth Ensemble with vocalist Julian Otis in a prominent role. The results demand the listener’s attention but also offer moments of humor along with marvelous singing and playing. It’s out June 26 on 2LP, CD, and digital through FPE Records.

EarthSeed is directly inspired by Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, Octavia E. Butler’s two novels from the 1990s, those books comprising her third thematic science-fiction series (after the Patternist and Xenogenesis collections) and the late-work (she passed on February 24, 2006, a year after publishing her final standalone novel Fledgling) that underscores her literary foresight in relation to the unpredictable, stressful and at times downright unsettling nature of current events.

With this said, per Mitchell in the PR for this release, “All the words and all the text in the music are ours, they’re not Octavia’s,” that is, “except for the word EarthSeed” (the cover art is “Patternmaster,” from Krista Franklin’s 2006 artist’s book SEED (The Book of Eve)). It’s also important to note that the music was recorded in performance at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Fullerton Hall on June 22, 2017 (by commission), and that Mitchell’s Butler-inspired work spans back to her Xenogenesis Suite from 2008 and Intergalactic Beings from 2014.

FPE’s background for EarthSeed also relates how Harris discovered Butler’s writing as she worked on her opera Lilith. This was four years prior to meeting Mitchell in New Orleans while attending the New Quorum Composers’ Residency (the other composers invited were Wadada Leo Smith and Damon Locks). Upon discovering their mutual appreciation for Butler’s books, they immediately decided to create as a team a work inspired by the author.

EarthSeed is that work. In addition to Harris’ vocals, theremin and electronics, Mitchell’s flute and electronics, and Julian Otis’ vocals, it features Zara Zaharieva on violin, Ben LaMar Gay on trumpet and electronics, Tomeka Reid on cello and Avreeayl Ra on percussion. While Mitchell and Harris are co-credited as composers of the text and music, it’s mentioned that EarthSeed is not a through-composed piece, as there is room for the improvisors to add their individual personalities to the whole

This reflects Mitchell’s experience in jazz, and more directly in Chicago jazz, in particular as a former chairwoman of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. While her work and that of the Black Earth Ensemble extends beyond the jazz classification (it’s often found under the rubrics of Creative or New Music), there is an undeniable link to jazz tradition and especially to the concept of Great Black Music as articulated by the Art Ensemble of Chicago (with whom Mitchell has recorded).

These connections are in evidence across EarthSeed as Mitchell works for the first time with vocalists who have a background in opera. By extension, while I’ve enjoyed Mitchell in a variety of settings (her own and the recordings of others), this is my first time hearing Harris, who delivered a knockout introduction that had me scrambling to check her out alongside Meshell N’degecello on Jason Moran’s 2014 album All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller.

That record is much different from this one, though All Rise does present Harris in a jazz context. A bigger distinction between the two is that Harris is very much at the forefront of EarthSeed as she and Otis cultivate an operatic discourse that is effectively merged into the larger experimental framework. But it’s her whistling and Mitchell’s flute that invitingly and intriguingly open this performance, with Harris so closely recorded that her breathing (along with other vocal motions) is audible.

The mysteriousness increases in “Whispering Flame” as the full ensemble enters, Gay’s trumpet lines growing in tandem with the vocals of Harris and Otis as the ambience suggests Modernist Classical composition with an Operatic twist, at least until the rising tension quickly bottoms out. After taking a few wild detours underscoring the piece’s narrative inspirations, the composition rebuilds, this time with percussion redolent of gamelan gongs.

Featuring passages of alternating text from Otis and Harris, “Biotic Seeds” is the first of two, make that three, sections in this flowing piece reinforcing the primacy of spoken words and range of emotion on EarthSeed. As FPE points out, later in the record, during the wordless back-and-forth of “Phallus and Chalice,” laughter is heard from the audience. “Yes and Know” inspired the same reaction as I listened.

More precisely, it’s “Yes and Know”’s sort of punchline, which actually arrives in the opening moments of the following section “Ownness,” where after absorbing Harris and Otis volleying what sounds like the opposing words Yes and No across a wide dramatic spectrum (along with additional interweaved spoken threads), the letters k-n-o-w get spelled out in a manner that’s more than a little similar to a disc jockey enunciating the call letters of a radio station.

From the start of “Biotic Seeds” through the conclusion of “Ownness,” every instrumentalist gets the opportunity to shine, from the strings of Zaharieva and Reid early in the sequence to the electronic textures late. Unsurprisingly, there is exquisite fluting from Mitchell, and Reid’s terrific bass-like cello workout in “Yes and No,” plus some remarkable intermingling of the ensemble with Harris and Otis in “Ownness.”

If the synths at the end of that track reinforce Mitchell and Harris as post-category composers, the initial stretch of “Moving Mirror,” heard loud on headphones, is a bit like waking up inside a giant cello. Neat. Things do relax a bit, but then the electronics come back, and in a way that really underscores the sci-fi basis for this recording.

That’s not to infer that anything even remotely clichéd is happening here, as EarthSeed is situated inside the realms of contemporary experimentalism in a fashion similar to where Butler’s writing fits into the science-fiction canon. “Whole Black Collision” hits an apex of intensity, both instrumentally and vocally, with “Phallus and Chalice” following in appealing contrast.

It features a bountiful serving of avant-scat syllabics as the playing lands in a zone betwixt Euro free improv and old-time narrative musical cues for violin. “Fluids of Time” has Harris in full operatic bloom as Otis dishes the spoken text, while “Elemental Crux” furthers the dialogue and provides ample evidence of Otis’ vocal range.

“Purify Me with the Power to Self Transform” is largely meditative, which is fitting for a finale, but the piece is also spiked with ardent singing from Harris. It’s an altogether superb conclusion to a transfixing release that’s destined to be one of the best of 2020, precisely because EarthSeed extends so brilliantly from the harsh realities that have turned this year into such a pressure cooker. With those elements of humor and sustained artistry, Mitchell, Harris and the Black Earth Ensemble inspire and provide something sturdy to hold onto.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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