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Guelph 2013: The Indigo Trio soars and leaves the audience exalted (review)

Nicole Mitchell's flute danced through many different forms over Hamid Drake's complex drumming and Harrison Bankhead's (not shown) rich bass. ©Brett Delmage, 2013The Indigo Trio (Nicole Mitchell, Hamid Drake, Harrison Bankhead)
St. George's Church (Mitchell Hall)
Guelph Jazz Festival
Thursday, September 5, 2013 - 9:50 p.m.

View photos of this concert

Nicole Mitchell is a jazz flute player who comes from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) tradition in Chicago; one of her most important mentors was saxophonist Fred Anderson. In other words, do not expect “pretty” from her: expect soaring notes, punctuated rhythms, and intense dynamics. For this concert she brought her Indigo Trio, with bassist Harrison Bankhead and percussionist Hamid Drake, both from Chicago.

They first played together as a trio at the 2005 Suoni per il Popolo Festival in Montreal, although they had known and played with each other for years. It was clearly a glorious grouping, and, based on this concert, one which I hope continues for many years.

In their 75-minute concert, the three circled around each other, Mitchell's flute shining over the deep rumble of Bankhead's bass and Drake's propulsive, booming drumming. The sound flowed through them, constantly shifting patterns like water flowing over rapids.

All three were intensely and physically involved in the music, with Mitchell actually dancing in place many times and occasionally singing wordlessly or chanting. Mitchell's flute could sound like birdsong at one moment, then acquire bluesy undertones, then inflect up and down, then become light and airy, then rapidly spin out notes. She also moved to piccolo for a few minutes, creating very high coruscating and intricate lines, which sounded like winds howling over the Prairies. Her performance was spectacularly masterful, but also inspired and emotionally intense.

Drake moved among repeated clicks and booms on the drums, bright, hard cymbals, light brushwork with rustling cymbals, and intense all-out playing on the full set. But always he was in the exact place needed to fill in the sound and enhance what the others were doing. His solo moments were incisive, multi-layered, and in accord with the flow of the music.

When Bankhead pulled out his bow, and started playing Arco bass, I immediately paid attention. It was not just that his playing was deep, resonant, and ominous: it was the way the sounds he produced covered most of the bass tonal spectrum, definitely the richest bowed bass sound I remember hearing. His bass sounded like a deep cello, but with a rougher edge.

But that certainly wasn't the only way he played the bass: he also created punctuated notes by touching individual strings with his bow; created a wide variety of pizzicato riffs, some bent and accented, some simple and fast; slapped the bass body with his accent for a percussive effect; pulled strings to inflect the sound; and overall created a constantly-changing and interesting bottom end to the music. Throughout he increased the trio's intensity and the fullness of its sound, for example, alternating questing, lonely bass lines with Mitchell's up and down explorations on flute.

The trio played straight through for an hour, creating a frequently-changing soundscape which nevertheless felt unified and developed. That effort was recognized by the audience by strong, extended applause and then a partial standing ovation.

Their second and final piece (“to take you home”) lasted just over ten minutes, and contained huge changes in dynamics: Mitchell's flute started out sounding almost Celtic, then fluttered, then faded to almost nothingness before it became more syncopated. Bankhead brushed the body of his bass with one hand while brushing the strings with the other, creating a steady, rushing sound, light and husky. Drake started out simply filling in the background with light, simple drumming, but gradually became faster and more intense.

Near the end, Mitchell sang a simple tune: “When you find the truth, you will realize you're a stranger in a strange land / You gotta stand strong / You're not alone / Stand strong / Stand strong”. She then returned to punctuated notes on flute, supported by a steady beat on bass and drums. Bankhead took over the vocal duties, scatting in a bebop style, and then Drake closed the piece with a hard, echoing drum solo and a grand flourish. The audience erupted into a standing ovation.

Mitchell, Drake, and Bankhead are three musicians whom I would dearly love to hear much more from. Individually, they were inventive, and eye-opening in their mastery of their instruments; together they were spectacular. Supporting each other, they produced a wide-ranging rush of music which never dragged and left you feeling uplifted and energized.

    – Alayne McGregor

All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2013
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See also:

Read more about the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival: