Flutist Nicole Mitchell's welcome return to Chicago

Nicole Mitchell

Nicole Mitchell performs at the Chicago Jazz Festival in Grant Park in 2010. (Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune / May 28, 2013)

The great flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell moved to Chicago – and launched her international career here – in 1990.

More than two decades later, in August of 2011, she left the city for California, yet it's still impossible to think of Mitchell as anything but a Chicago experimenter. The distinctly sensuous sound of her flute, the brilliance of her self-styled techniques and the sheer stylistic sweep of her compositions set a high standard for a generation of jazz instrumentalists here (and beyond). Moreover, her work became a global symbol of the city's celebrated experimental-jazz scene, thanks to her relentless international touring.

So when Mitchell returns to Chicago this weekend for high-profile performances at the Green Mill Jazz Club on Friday and the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts on Saturday, her followers may not regard the appearances exactly as a homecoming. Instead, they may consider the weekend more a continuation of music that still resonates deeply in our memories and in the city's cultural identity.

For Mitchell, the return will remind her of what she left behind.

"I miss the community, I miss feeling connected and running into people in the street that you know," says Mitchell, now an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine.

"Even though you have these different neighborhoods in Chicago, they all converge. In California, you have instead of neighborhoods all these little, tiny cities. Communication is a little more challenging."

Not that Mitchell regrets the move. She had been yearning to head west because "my dad was getting up in age, and I wanted to be able to share more time with him," she recalls. Her fiancée encouraged her to take the chance and leave Chicago, and no sooner did she make the decision, she says, than the teaching job came through.

Though Mitchell has maintained her brisk schedule of concertizing around the world, she apparently has flourished at the University of California, having just been awarded tenure, a remarkably swift promotion by academic standards (it goes into effect on July 1, says Mitchell).

"She's become an important part of one of the country's most innovative graduate programs in new music, the Integrated Composition, Improvisation and Technology (ICIT) course at a major research institution," says George Lewis, winner of a MacArthur Fellowship or "genius grant," in an email (Lewis is the Edwin H. Case professor of American music at Columbia University).

"She's the sort of person I think of as a future MacArthur Fellow," adds Lewis, "someone who is well on her way to becoming recognized as a major American experimental artist, whose work is proving transformative in both the performance and academic worlds."

Indeed, the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation – which awards the $500,000, no-strings-attached fellowships – would be hard-pressed to find a more worthy music honoree, considering all that Mitchell has achieved and, more important, all that she's poised to accomplish.

During the past decade, alone, Mitchell unveiled a remarkable range of compositions, including "Harambee: Road to Victory" (2012), a populist, gospel-tinged orchestral-choral work that amounted to a plea for peace, performed by the Chicago Sinfonietta and the Apostolic Church of God Sanctuary Choir; "Honoring Grace: Michelle Obama" (2009), a joyous jazz suite saluting the First Lady and played by Mitchell and her Black Earth Orchestra; "Arc of O" (2010), a 42-minute contemporary classical opus for double orchestra performed by Mitchell's hand-picked players; "Intergalactic Beings" (2010), a provocative avant-garde tone poem inspired by the science fiction of Octavia Butler; and "Where Many Rivers Meet the Sea" (2007), Mitchell's moving homage to Alice Colrane, delivered by Mitchell's Black Earth Orchestra.

For her Chicago return, Mitchell will appear in two very different contexts, first leading her Ice Crystal ensemble Friday night at the Green Mill to celebrate the release of its album "Aquarius" (Delmark Records). This music underscores her ties to Chicago, and not only because the band is staffed by such eminent Chicago experimenters as vibist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly. The translucent beauty of this music was inspired, says Mitchell, by winter days and nights she spent at the frozen lakefront, admiring its crystalline allure.

"I like to go to the lake when no one's there, and all these ice formations from the rain and hail" take hold, explains Mitchell. "It's like these sculptures of ice. And it's a little scary, because you don't know where the water starts and the sand ends. It's this quiet, pristine, visual experience."

Which Mitchell and friends have transformed into sound, expressed by the distinctive tintinnabulation of Adasiewicz's vibes, the deep resonance of Abrams' bass and the lithe, brilliant percussion of Rosaly. Ice Crystal piques the ear with its layers of sparkling instrumental color.

On Saturday night, Mitchell will be leading her Black Earth Strings in the closing performance of Chicago cellist Tomeka Reid's first Jazz String Summit, Mitchell's appearance lending instant credibility and artistic heft to Reid's venture. Like Mitchell many years ago, Reid has begun to establish herself as a first-rate soloist-bandleader who's doubling as jazz advocate and organizer.

"I'm so proud of her," says Mitchell, who has shown the way for Reid, just as jazz pioneers such as Mary Lou Williams and Alice Coltrane opened a path for Mitchell.

"She's really got it," adds Mitchell, referring to Reid, "in terms of how important it is to develop – to make things that help develop community and bring people together."

Which, of course, is exactly what Mitchell has been doing in Chicago and, now, in California. She just started a project in Los Angeles that she calls Sun Dial, drawing on a range of West Coast musicians, including another former Chicagoan, guitarist Jeff Parker.

For Mitchell, clearly the experiments continue – only the setting has changed.

Nicole Mitchell and Ice Crystal perform at 9 p.m. Friday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com. Mitchell and Black Earth Strings play the closing performance of the first Chicago Jazz String Summit at 7 p.m. Saturday at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.; free; chicagojazzstringsummit.com or 773-702-2787.

Eddie C. Campell benefit

Billy Branch, Eddie "The Chief" Clearwater," Eddie Shaw, Lurrie Bell, Jimmy Burns, Dave Specter, Demetria Taylor and many other leading Chicago blues figures will play a "Welcome Home Birthday Party Benefit" for Chicago singer-guitarist Eddie C. Campbell. Campbell "suffered a stroke and heart attack while on tour in Germany," according to the benefit flyer, but he's back in Chicago and receiving therapy. He recently turned 74, and this event "will be his first public appearance since returning to Chicago," notes the flyer.

The event starts at 10:30 p.m Friday at Buddy Guy's Legends, 700 S. Wabash Ave.; all donations will go to Campbell's care fund; phone 312-427-1190 or visit buddyguy.com.

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com.

hreich@tribune.com | Twitter @howardreich

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