Nicole Mitchell, an Innovative Flutist With an Afrofuturist Vision

Nicole Mitchell, one of the most innovative jazz flutists of the past 30 years, is the artist-in-residence at Winter Jazzfest in New York. Credit Emily Berl for The New York Times
Nicole Mitchell, 50, the artist-in-residence at this week’s Winter Jazzfest in New York, brings an eclectic ear and a frothy vigor to her instrument. The flute is rarely given much of a chance in jazz — maybe it seems too quiet, too liquid, too fey — but she has transcended all that, becoming a leading voice of the music’s cutting edge. Yet Ms. Mitchell has the demeanor of an author more than a protagonist. Her projects typically begin with a conceptual narrative and end as a group endeavor, with many voices spilling into a collective expression. What can sometimes be forgotten is that Ms. Mitchell is probably the most inventive flutist in the past 30 years of jazz. So too can the fact that all her music — from its fetching melodies and shadowy harmonies to the synergistic resolve of her bands — flows from her careful engineering. That was the case with Bamako*Chicago Sound System, a group that Ms. Mitchell coleads with the Malian kora player Ballake Sisoko, but that began as her brainchild. And it’s borne out particularly on the two remarkable albums she released last year: “Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds,”featuring her Black Earth Ensemble; and “Liberation Narratives,” a collaboration with the poet and activist Haki Madhubuti, her mentor for over 25 years. Drawing in part on his influence, Ms. Mitchell founded the Black Earth Ensemble, a midsize group with a rotating cast, in the mid-1990s. The music she writes for it focuses on a storytelling sensibility. She started working on “Mandorla Awakening” — the ensemble’s most recent project and, so far, its masterpiece — after reading “The Chalice and the Blade,” the Riane Eisler book that sorts societies into two columns: those guided more by the will toward domination, and those that are more partnership-based and collaborative. “ ‘Mandorla’ really started with philosophical questions, like: What is progress?” Ms. Mitchell said in an interview at a cafe on the South Side here. “There’s no more delusions about the fact that we don’t treat each other any better, as people, than we did thousands of years ago. So this idea of progress that we’re really focused on in our culture isn’t real in a lot of ways.”