Nicole Mitchell's Sun Dial Ensemble Shines Bright

Mitchell's band of virtuosos hit hard at the School for the Arts

New music concert promoter Bonnie Wright’s Fresh Sound series continues to enthrall local audiences – even when unusual circumstances – such as a last-minute venue change, threaten to darken the festivities.

On March 7, flute virtuoso Nicole Mitchell and her Sun Dial Ensemble delivered a rousing and inspiring set at the Athenaeum School for the Arts, shining light not only on her astonishing instrumental prowess, but her singular skills as a composer as well.

Mitchell’s band featured Michael Dessen on trombone, Mark Dresser on bass, Dwight Trible on voice, Najite Agindotan on percussion and Juan David Rubio on drums playing a diverse collection of new and older compositions united by a joyous emphasis on rhythmic interplay. Stylistically, Mitchell’s effort seemed to combine elements of Charles Mingus on one end, the Art Ensemble of Chicago on the other, with a potent dash of Johnny Dyani in the center.

She began the evening alone, with breathy trills, growling, soaring and splitting harmonics, before Dresser’s eerie arco, followed by Dessen’s blustery bone wrapped around her melodic theme as the whole band locked into an ebullient tribal groove that never let up. Trible’s voice unfolded layers of angst and joy on “Ancient Future,” anchored by the rock-solid ostinato from Dresser while Dessen and Mitchell’s golden unisons melded into individual statements heavy on breathtaking multiphonics and bluesy swagger. She pounded repetitions with the force of a pneumatic hammer, churning up a vortex with the drum tandem that was mesmerizing.

The furious free-bop theme of “There,” swung mightily on the sweeping brushes of Rubio and the “walk-don’t-walk” motion of Dresser, allowing the flutist to venture boldly into a long, freewheeling solo with more plot-twists than Dickens. Some of the pieces, like the wondrously episodic “Destiny Transformed,” broke into neat sub-features for Dessen’s turgid chortling or Dresser’s violently rhythmic duo with Agindotan – whose propulsion illuminated the entire proceedings even though he never took a solo, per se. Rubio, as well, proved to be a remarkable find. His fluid work on the traps left plenty of space, meshed like clockwork with Agindotan and his crisp detail on the ride cymbal provided a laser focus to everyone’s improvisations.

All of Mitchell’s tunes were brimming with singable melodies and dancing rhythms providing a genuine feeling of celebration that was impossible to ignore. Early candidate for the top-ten list.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.

Contact Us