BEE at 20

April 28, 2018 

Black Earth Ensemble's 20th Celebration 

Received a invitation to come to the twentieth year celebration of Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble at Constellation Chicago. When I accepted the invitation to play, Niki seemed genuinely pleased. I eagerly awaited the opportunity to share in the music of my friend of great accomplishments. I tried my best not to be worried about how I’d do. 

Upon arriving, Black Earth Ensemble was finishing up the soundcheck. When Niki saw that I was there, she urged me to set up quickly, and launched into “South Shore” before I’d gotten fully tuned. The melody came back to me and I found my way into the song and a little solo exploration. Resumed tuning, then settled into my seat as part of the arriving audience. 

Uncharacteristically, Nicole opened the concert by talking instead of playing. It was a joyful, welcoming introduction to the program, during which she explained that BEE was always about change, so the personnel was always changing, including around forty musicians over the twenty years of music making. 

As a retrospective slideshow filled the back curtain, the first tune, “Africa Rising,” opened with the violin work of Samuel Willams/Savoir Faire who, along with Darius Savage, was in the first iteration of BEE. Ugochi Nwaogwugwu was called up, giving rich, spirited voice to Nicole’s lyrics and chants. When she asked the audience if they recognized the song, Niki remarked that the concert could unfold like a game of “Name That Tune.” 

I wish I’d had the foresight to document the set list as the concert progressed. But I was caught up in the power of the music and of my impending guest appearance. At one point, though, I turned my worry into an affiirmation that this moment was not about me and that I could just be open to what could come through me. 

When Niki introduced me, she also called up Ugochi and Zahra to vocalize. They did a compelling introduction to “Three Blue Stones”, while I added embellishments. I kept adjusting my tuning and never really felt that I’d gotten it right. After a while Niki signaled for my solo and I let it flow.  I also soloed on South Shore, as well as playing on the melody. 

Enough about me. Nicole Mitchell’s music was amazing, as was the creativity and musicianship of the band: cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Joshua Abrams, (who may well be Nicole’s most frequent collaborators); drummer Marcus Evans and percussionist JoVia Armstrong; guitarist Alex Wing and pianist Jim Baker. There were songs with multiple time signatures; passages of dizzying speed and dexterity; and lyrics reflecting these times and imagined futures. At one point, during the second half, Nicole turned to the band and asked, “Wanna get harder?” They agreed, expertly performing compositions that had the front row of musicians in the audience physically trying to comprehend rhythms and structures. 

During the intermission, friends and fans mingled, sharing stories of and praise for Nicole’s amazing career and creative output, including awards, fellowships, international appearances, and a number of performing ensembles. Many of those present remembered the soft spoken woman who has become a powerful bandleader and a veritable force of nature. 

Several musical friends arrived during the second half, probably following gigs of their own. When she realized it, Nicole invited bassist Junius Paul and drummer Isaiah Spencer to sit in, after checking in with Josh and Marcus about relinquishing their spots and instruments. I shouted to Niki that Ben Lamar Gay was also present, so he joined the group on cornet. What followed was a spirited piece, which turned into an exchange between JoVia and Isaiah, which Zahra described as Africa drums mixing with Double Dutch; a moment so intense that Nicole just took a seat in the audience to enjoy it along with us. Master drummers carried us home. 

BEE’s parting song had the sound and feel of South Africa, with a chant that became a communal sing of “Peace and love til I see you again” Zahra and I got to add our energy and harmonies, once Niki heard what we were doing on the sidelines. It was a beautiful ending to a perfect celebration.