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Nicole Mitchell's 'Renegade' Jazz

To me, Nicole Mitchell is one of the most engaging composer/performers in jazz. She's a terrific improviser on flute and piccolo, with a clear and forceful sound. But she writes well for improvisers, too.

She starts with catchy phrases that seem almost too simple, and then brings on the complications. Her new album, Renegades, matches exploratory playing with deep grooves and a tight ensemble blend. The group is a new one, her Black Earth Strings: flute, three strings and Shirazette Tinnin on percussion. A lineup of flute and strings may have you picturing jazz in pastels, but this is a tough little quintet.

The band is new, but two players are longtime Mitchell allies. Tomeka Reid's cello beefs up the ensemble sound, and the excellent bass player Josh Abrams ties everyone's time together. Mitchell has worked with larger and smaller bands, but this quintet feels like a good fit.

Just large enough to juggle polyrhythmic cycles, but small enough to keep textures transparent and give everyone pivotal roles. They've got that interlocking groove thing down.

Mitchell is a mainstay of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an organization which ignores boundaries between musical genres. In that spirit, her violinist is a classical musician blooming as an improviser, Renee Baker. Mixing jazz and classical players doesn't always work, but Mitchell gets the best out of both — chamber-music delicacy and cohesion, with strong individuals and a propulsive beat.

As a composer, Mitchell has ranged between the high art of last year's Xenogenesis Suite and populist anthems of self-improvement; one of those makes a token appearance here. Like most artists who test their expressive range, she does some things better than others. But Renegades finds her zeroing in on what she does best, which means Mitchell's music just keeps getting better.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.