maroon cloud, a powerful eight-part suite by celebrated flutist Nicole Mitchell, is a paean to the human gift of imagination and its ability to foster resistance in our dystopian times. It features a drum-less quartet with Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid, pianist Aruán Ortiz and vocalist Fay Victor, recorded live at National Sawdust in Brooklyn as part of John Zorn’s Stone Commissioning Series (March 29, 2017). (The same group returned to play Le Poisson Rouge during Winter Jazzfest in January 2018.)
In part, maroon cloud refers to the realm of creativity that we can enter simply by closing our eyes — an ability no one can take away from us. “Imagination, especially black imagination, is a really vital and undervalued resource,” the composer states. “It’s very clear that we can’t continue in the same direction that we’ve gone, but we need to return to the source of where imagination and creativity come from, because if we don’t have another vision then we can’t implement it, and we can’t make a different future. What makes us special as human beings is our ability to imagine things that don’t even exist yet.”
Those future-seeking visions, for now, exist in what we might call the “cloud.” “Maroon,” meanwhile, has a number of meanings: in part it ties into the theme of resistance by referencing the Maroons — those Africans who escaped slavery in the Caribbean and banded with indigenous people to form their own communities as early as the 16th century. Mitchell also cites the alternate meaning of “marooned,” i.e., people being left or abandoned to their fate. And then there’s maroon, the rich dark color we might see with eyes closed, imagining social and political renewal.
The absence of drums on maroon cloud opens up space for “other ways of coming together,” as Mitchell puts it. Drums can lend definition and physicality to a group sound, Mitchell observes, yet this quartet still manifests a great deal of rhythm in its communication and dialogue. Not having drums, for Mitchell, requires “adjustment and transformation” brought about by “having to go in a new direction.”
Fay Victor’s vocal role on maroon cloud is strikingly multifaceted, encompassing eerie abstract melody (both written and extemporized), arresting spoken-word passages, and moments that evoke the raw heart of blues and soul. Ortiz brings out haunting inner harmonies with a sparkling tone and touch. Reid articulates parts with a rich, broad legato and delves into improvisation with bracing extended techniques, but also supplies the music with a bass-like fullness and momentum. And Mitchell, like Victor summoning the breath, centers the music with her radiant flute, framed in every setting from solo to duo to full ensemble.
Nicole Mitchell, a longtime Chicagoan and professor of music at the University of California-Irvine, recently received a Champion of New Music Award from the American Composers Forum. She has been hailed for her “Afrofuturist vision” and credited as “probably the most inventive flutist in the past 30 years of jazz” by The New York Times. Her varied projects and leadership as the first woman to chair the AACM have widened the scope of improvised music as a whole.
maroon cloud is available August 10, 2018 in CD or digital formats.