Nicole Mitchell and Lisa E. Harris explore soulful Afrofuturist visions on EarthSeed | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Nicole Mitchell and Lisa E. Harris explore soulful Afrofuturist visions on EarthSeed 

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click to enlarge Nicole Mitchell and Lisa E. Harris

Nicole Mitchell and Lisa E. Harris

Courtesy the Artist

A friend in Houston recently described multidisciplinary artist and space goddess Lisa E. Harris as a “force of nature” in the Texas scene and beyond. Upon investigation, I had to concur. Harris channels the Afrofuturism of Sun Ra, the transcendent devotionals of Alice Coltrane, and the deep-listening experiments of Pauline Oliveros—all while maintaining her own unique vision. Harris is trained in opera, and she can often be found playing theremin or synthesizers, but she also brings theater, spoken word, and dance into her colorful cosmic performances. Though I’m still getting acquainted with Harris’s work, I didn’t need an introduction to jazz musician Nicole Mitchell, her collaborator on the recent EarthSeed—in the late 90s, when she still lived in Chicago, I ran all over the city to see her with fellow local luminaries such as David Boykin and Hamid Drake. Mitchell’s visionary flute playing, as well as the compositional skills she displayed with her Black Earth Ensemble, blew my young mind. She left for California in 2011, then relocated to Pennsylvania in 2019 (she’s the chair of the jazz studies program at the University of Pittsburgh), but I was thrilled to see her in Chicago once again last summer for a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of her frequent collaborators, the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago. Mitchell had also returned to the Windy City in summer 2017 to perform with Harris at the Art Institute, where they debuted a new work titled EarthSeed, inspired by the dystopian science-fiction series of the same name by pioneering Afrofuturist author Octavia Butler. Mitchell and Harris were joined onstage by vocalist Julian Otis, cellist Tomeka Reid, violinist Zara Zaharieva, percussionist Avreeayl Ra, and multi-instrumentalist Ben LaMar Gay, and the group’s richly varied performance was recorded live and released last month as a double LP by Oak Park label FPE Records. The ensemble sound like they’re channeling music from another universe; on “Whispering Flame,” Mitchell’s flute weaves and buzzes like an intergalactic insect alongside Harris and Otis’s darkly operatic vocals. “Yes and Know” features playful call-and-response spoken interplay that suddenly gives way to urgent poetry and chants amid the glistening streams of Gay’s trumpet, the primordial swoops of Mitchell’s flute, and the rhythmic slashes of Zaharieva’s violin. “Moving Mirror” is an odyssey that begins with a free-jazzy wall of scrape, then segues into a propulsive cello riff before melancholy violin and frothing electronics cascade into the mix. The musical journey of EarthSeed defies any comfortable genre tag; it’s ritual, it’s soul exploration, and most important, it’s challenging, rewarding art. I wish I’d seen this incredible performance in person, but it’s comforting to know—especially now that live music is all but extinct—that this recording exists and can continue to transport anyone who listens.   v

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