Virtuoso flutist Nicole Mitchell has penned several extended suites, but none quite like the one she unveiled Friday night at La Follette Park, on North Laramie Avenue.
For "Liberation Narratives" paid homage to a leading Chicago literary figure who stood a few feet away from her, performing his poetry to one of the subtlest scores Mitchell has yet written.
Moreover, the relationship between Mitchell and poet Haki Madhubuti runs deeper than their presence on stage might have suggested. For in addition to admiring Madhubuti's work, Mitchell long has considered him a mentor: Early in her career he hired her to do office work at the Chicago publishing house he founded, Third World Press.
Madhubuti has nurtured and encouraged her ever since, watching her become one of the more widely acclaimed flutists in jazz. He sometimes says that he considers himself her "cultural father."
The depth of Mitchell's admiration for Madhubuti was apparent throughout "Liberation Narratives," for this suite of 10 movements placed Madhubuti's poetry front and center, the music mostly accompanying, echoing and responding to the text. As a result, "Liberation Narratives" – named for a Madhubuti anthology – amounted to a kind of concerto for poet and orchestra, Madhubuti delivering his street-savvy text like a jazz soloist, while Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble played a softly shimmering music alongside him.
The concept for this program – presented by the Chicago Park District and the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago – was hard to beat. Yet one wished it had been presented with production values worthy of the poetry and music itself.
Unfortunately, the echoing auditorium at the La Follette Park field house swallowed up large chunks of Madhubuti's text. And the inadequate program booklet contained not a line of Madhubuti's poetry nor even the titles of the works he was reading, leaving listeners often grasping for context and meaning. That the heat in the field house had been turned up to a stifling degree did not help, much of the standing-room-only audience exiting during intermission.
That said, the eloquent poems that could be heard in full benefited from Mitchell's score, none more than "Too Many of Our Young are Dying." Penned roughly a quarter-century ago but tragically applicable today, Madhubuti's words amounted to a lament, the poet decrying that "our children, in the millions/are dropping from the trees of life too soon…."
The spare textures, searing melodic phrases and slow-and-stately rhythms of Mitchell's instrumental setting suggested a dirge. When David Boykin unfurled a plaintive solo on tenor saxophone, Madhubuti's words became almost too difficult to hear. Tragedy enveloped these words and this music, and the combination of the two enhanced the narrative power of each.
As if this weren't enough, the sounds of children softly emerged, in the form of sound samples from electronics artist Jayve Montgomery. Slowly but steadily he turned up the dial, the joyous chorus of children's voices set against the dark musings of Mitchell's score and the bracing poetry of Madhubuti's narration. If you didn't have moist eyes during these passages, you weren't paying attention.
The other indelible moment of the evening unfolded in "Move Un-Noticed to be Noticed: A Nationhood Poem." Madhubuti's text conveyed the headlong rush of jazz improvisation, its syllables cascading one atop the next, its accents and syncopations tapping the rhythmic syntax of an imposing instrumental solo.
Madhubuti delivered the piece as if he were a tenor saxophonist, his words gathering energy, speed and momentum with each phrase. This was Madhubuti's most impassioned performance of the night, Mitchell and vocalist Mankwe Ndosi providing urgent back-up vocals in unison. When Madhubiti took a pause, the Black Earth Ensemble produced a roar of group improvisation, a kind of exclamation point for this poem and for the "Liberation Narratives" suite in its entirety.
It's too bad listeners couldn't have better heard and savored every syllable of "Gwendolyn Brooks" – which Madhubuti wrote as homage to his own mentor – yet the vernacular wit of the piece somehow still came through. And the unbridled sense of love and affection that radiated from Madhubuti's "Mothers" inspired comparable warmth from the score, especially when flutist Mitchell and violinist Renee Baker duetted.
Elsewhere, the clarion trumpet work of David Young, deeply sonorous bass lines of Joshua Abrams, light-and-lithe percussion of JoVia Armstrong and ferocious intensity of cellist Tomeka Reid illuminated aspects of Madhubuti's poetry that otherwise might have been overlooked.
So perhaps it's best to regard this performance as a first attempt at bringing "Liberation Narratives" to life. Next we need to hear it under better conditions.