For the last few years the flutist Nicole Mitchell has been living on the West Coast, teaching at University of California, Irvine, in the Integrated Composition Improvisation and Technology MFA program. But she lived in Chicago for almost 20 years, eventually becoming president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the cooperative organization that encompassed and defined most of the Chicago experimental jazz scene. And she is mystical for sure, but she’s also internalized some of the association’s other practical lessons: ambition and realness.
Aquarius is the first album by her group Ice Crystal, a quartet with three Chicago-based musicians: the vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, the bassist Joshua Abrams and the drummer Frank Rosaly. It’s smaller concept than usual for her; in her past work, with groups of varying size and sound, there are a lot of suites and big themes, works inspired by the science fiction author Octavia Butler and the first lady, Michelle Obama, and the planet Earth.
This record, by contrast, is more like a day in the working life of a small band: self-contained songs and structures, swinging or free, all representing the Chicago ideal of unassuming art that reaches far beyond its matte finish.
Aside from everything else, Mitchell is an excellent flute player, fast and fluid, hypermelodic, alert to the moment, interested in negative space and breadth of sound. It’s not surprising to hear a jazz flutist influenced by Eric Dolphy; what’s surprising is to hear one who can play at his level, and a few tracks here, particularly Aqua Blue and Expectation, pretty closely approximate the sound of Dolphy with the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson from the 1964 album Out to Lunch! with the rhythm section’s hard midtempo swing.
Adasiewicz has his own versions of Hutcherson’s hard clanks and glassy shimmers; he’s always building a bed of texture for Mitchell to play over, and though she solos more, they turn out to be a team you’ll want to hear more of, one of jazz’s special front-line relationships.
Not every song on Aquarius unfolds so concisely as those, with such clear landmarks. Some, like the title track and Above the Sky, are more like instrumental chants or sun-salutations, with deeper grooves or rustling rubato; others, toward the middle of the album, use various strategies of slow or frenetic movement for collective improvisation; in Diga, Diga, the musicians leave rhythm behind and explore the possibilities of sound — Adasiewicz and Abrams using bows on vibraphone bars and bass strings, Rosaly using hands on drums.
Even when a piece sounds like it’s going to be simple, Mitchell is too rigorous a composer just to set up a cycle of rhythm and chords and yield control. She guides the movement of these pieces into a unity and purpose. Her melodies and arrangements can suddenly bloom and intensify, deep in the middle of a repeated structure, or even toward the end of a piece, when you expect nothing but cruising.