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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Joelle Leandre, Nicole Mitchell, and Thomas Buckner

Joelle Leandre & Nicole Mitchell - Sisters Where (Rouge Arts, 2014)  ****½
Joelle Leandre & Nicole Mitchell, Thomas Buckner - Flowing Stream (Leo Records, 2014) ***

By Stefan Wood

Joelle Leandre is an accomplished French bassist, who has for over thirty years been one of the premier European musicians in contemporary improvised music, playing with a wide range of artists from Anthony Braxton to John Cage.  Nicole Mitchell is an American flautist, president of the AACM, a professor and Doris Duke recipient who is known for her compositions as well as her playing.  Sisters Where, is a duets album that features both artists in a live setting in Paris, 2013, and showcases their talents and high level of improvisational play.  The six tracks, sub 46 minute in length, take the listener through their interplanetary exploration of spiritual jazz.  The duo may have channeled a little Sun Ra in spirit, but they have their own unique take. 

Bass and flute lock in together on "Sisters on Venus,"  occupying the lower registers, almost buzzing with low intensity, then drifting apart, Joelle engaging in a furiously quiet solo with quick, light plucking, and ending with breathy, wordless vocals.  "Sisters on Mercury" has the flute soloing, insistent notes that have a strong eastern phrasing, then fluttering just briefly for the bass to come in, as they weave in and out of each other's sound for eight minutes.  One must take note of Nicole Mitchell's playing which is outstanding.  In some ways it is consistent when she plays in a large ensemble, but stripped down and exposed in this setting, the creativity and high level skill shines.  Joelle Leandre is no slouch either, alternately plucking and bowing with expertise.  They are a tight sonic duo, and their collaboration takes the listener into an engaging and stimulating voyage to the stars.

It is not their first collaboration. They had previously worked together as a duo on Before After, three years prior, and on this date, with the addition of Thomas Buckner, called Flowing Stream. Recorded live at the Vision Fest in 2012, the trio engage in a mixture of abstract vocal calisthenics and instruments.  Buckner's gurgling and ululating occupy a low register, Mitchell the upper register, with Leandre somewhere in between.  Flute and bass will replace a vocal with similar intensity and effect.  Track number 6, which is untitled, is a standout track, with Buckner singing a wordless vocal, like out of a Carl Orff composition, Leandre doing a Bach like bowing on the cello, the result being something very spiritual and gothic.  Most of the tracks are very short, so the album does not drag on, which is good, because 3/4 of the way through the ideas seem to run out, and the sound gets a bit repetitive.

Of the two, Sisters Where is a knockout of an album, featuring some of Nicole Mitchell's finest playing on record.  Flowing Stream, is not as strong, but has strong moments of abstract vocalizing.