New crystalline music for flutes and mallets

If you look at the covers of flautists Nicole Mitchell and Anna Webber’s new albums, you’ll see crystals. On Percussive mechanics, Webber depicts a handful of carefully arranged shards of glass as if to create an abstract sculpture. On AquariusMitchell wraps himself in a prick of ice cubes — the kind you see lying around at Christmas — which is fitting, because his band is called Ice Crystal.

The crystalline metaphors seem appropriate for these two albums, colored by the combination of each conductor’s flute with a mallet instrument. The mixture of flute and vibraphone or marimba brings a transparent and sparkling quality: light and audible, but allowing depth and mystery.

It also recalls some precedents. The great mallet man Milt Jackson once made an album with the flute, played by Bobby Jaspar or Frank Wess, as the main foil, and called it Bags and flutes. Latin jazz bands, especially those on the West Coast less attached to a specific Afro-Caribbean tradition, have found an exotic flavor in the flute and vibraphone connection. And there’s the biting combination of Eric Dolphy’s flute and Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone on the classic album. Go out for lunch.

The latter comes to mind especially with Mitchell’s album. She’s written her fair share of long-running concept sequels and big ensembles, but with Ice Crystal the focus is simply on quartet songs. This gives this music a certain brevity, especially on tracks like “Aqua Blue”, “Expectation” or “Sunday Afternoon” – where bassist Joshua Abrams leads with a marching beat and drummer Frank Rosaly composes alongside. The ethereal tendencies of the vibraphone, here interpreted by Jason Adasiewicz, and the flute remain anchored, pleasantly.

Anna Webber’s Only Song Aquarius which features the leader’s flute – she’s also a saxophonist – is called “Dan:ce”. But it happens to be the first track that sets the tone for the album (Eric Dolphy plays flute on a single Go out for lunch cut, anyway). “Dan:ce” seems to borrow from the layered polyrhythms (and drum recording preference) of one of Webber’s teachers, percussionist John Hollenbeck, and with marimba, electric keyboard and clarinet, recalls the unusual instrumentation of the Claudia Quintet of Hollenbeck. But again, it’s the woody mallets and airy flute – warmth and breath – that give what could be a mechanistic arrangement of flesh and blood.

There’s a lot more going on in these recordings, but the tension generated by the well-tempered mallets and the abyssal flute stands out. They can be used together for an alien, emotionless effect. Or they can be harnessed for a serious but distinctly human symbiosis – as they are here.

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