Finding Artifacts

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Artifacts, from left: Nicole Mitchell, Mike Reed and Tomeka Reid, at Estrada Poznanska in Poland.

(Photo: Lauren Deutsch)

Back in January 2021, the world was in deep lockdown and the jazz trio Artifacts performed a concert to a nearly empty room at Constellation in Chicago.

Viewed online several months later, the silence and austerity within the room remain palpable. Masks worn by Cellist Tomeka Reid and drummer Mike Reed add to that sense of distance. Still, they express warmth and even joy in these conditions. That came when flutist Nicole Mitchell communicated to them through a raised eyebrow as much as through their musical exchanges. At the time of this set, Artifacts had been together for about seven years, but their collaborations went back much further. In fact, their school of thought stretches back through decades.

These bonds run throughout Artifacts’ new album …And Then There’s This (Astral Spirits). Layered original compositions that arose from collective improvisation run alongside succinct tunes built on upbeat grooves. Gradual shifts to outside harmonies are prominent, so are warm ballads. The timbral adjustments they make are their own, but also connect to a tradition of invention from their hometown.

Reid formed the trio in 2015 to perform at Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival. At the time, Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) was celebrating its 50th anniversary, and since she could not attend the festivities, the cellist decided to bring its songbooks to the Pacific Northwest. Reid, Mitchell and Reed all have served as AACM executives and were immersed in its historical compositions. They had also been longtime collaborators, including working together in Reed’s Loose Assembly and Reid is a part of Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, which originated in the late 1990s. These shared personal connections are a key to this trio’s bond.

“I’m someone who doesn’t forget those who have looked out for me,” Reid said. “This is an opportunity for me to say thank you and let’s do something together. I wasn’t specifically thinking about instrumentation necessarily, I was thinking more about these musical personalities. I love these guys, I would like to be in a group with them.”

“We have grown in our adulthood together, so we’re influenced by the same things and by each other,” Reed added. “Maybe it took all this time of knowing each other to be able to pull off this trio in the right way.”

Artifacts released its self-titled debut (on 482 Music) in 2015. That album highlighted the trio’s fluid communication as well as its advocacy for AACM composers. The variety in this material provided the ideal platform for quick-thinking movements. The trio quietly blazed through tempo changes that highlight the lighthearted spirit in Anthony Braxton’s “Composition 23B.” Reed’s fleet patterns direct Reid and Mitchell through the tonal changes in Fred Anderson’s “Bernice” as it gets mashed up with Jeff Parker’s “Days Fly By With Ruby.” Their unison fuels the crescendos in Amina Claudine Myers’ gospel-derived “Have Mercy Upon Us.” But the biggest tribute that Artifacts paid to this lineage was the striking arrangements that they brought to these pieces.

“We put a contemporary spin on things,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes we might bring things into a groove, a different approach that maybe they might not have done previously. Most of the AACM composers are undefinable in terms of their stylistic approaches. We also can take things to different spaces and just the idea of having experiments with [them], we can do it in our own way. The tradition is being original. The tradition is challenging yourself to go outside boundaries and to be playful, to rebel sometimes, make your own rules, make your own paradigm where each moment you have the responsibility of freedom. When we’re honoring another AACM member through playing their music, we have a responsibility to bring our own voice to it. Not to imitate what they’ve done.”

The trio Air is a historical AACM group that connects with Artifacts. Its 1970s recordings of Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin pieces reflect a shared belief in breathing new life into venerated repertoire. And, like Artifacts, Air’s saxophonist Henry Threadgill, bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall relied on their assets as individual writers as much as a sharp three-way dialog.

“That was a collaborative band, it wasn’t Threadgill’s band,” Reed said. “There were three people in that group, and they all wrote music. Another thing about Air that’s interesting is they flip around the roles, and we also like to do that. With us, improvising isn’t one dimensional, like with a fire-breathing loft scene kind of vibe — although we can do that, too.”

With Artifacts’ distinctive lineup, the group’s performances of any songs would have their own character. Small jazz groups with a cellist are not totally unprecedented — Reid mentioned the early 1970s Black Unity Trio among bands that included Abdul Wadud. But they remain rare. Even more atypical is how this trio easily shifts the expected melodic, rhythmic and roles of each of their instruments through their playing and writing.

“There’s a bass function, percussion function and treble function, that’s how I’m thinking,” Reid said. “It’s just more fun and also pushes boundaries with what you do on your instrument: Trying to figure out a different approach than you would if I’m just the soloist. We all enjoy just making music. Nikki has a well of creativity she’s always drawing from and can be really out there sometimes, but in a good way. With Mike, I like playing tunes written by drummers. Everyone has their own style, but it’s different, too. You’re in hot pink land, that one’s dark — all in a similar world, and they all complement each other.”

The members of Artifacts also readjust their instrumental textures in other ways. Mitchell’s interest in electronics includes adding guitar pedals to the flute, which lends it more resonance. Reed has added fire alarm bells to his drum kit, but gliding across them with a bow, rather than striking them with a stick, complements Reid and Mitchell’s dynamics.

“We can move to more traditional horn/bass/drum territory because I don’t play on top of them or cover them up,” Reed said. “They don’t have to compete with cymbals and the rest of the drum kit.”

While all three consider Chicago to be their artistic home base, they have resided in different cities for parts of the six years between albums. Reid relocated to Queens, New York, in 2016, moved back to Chicago four years later and started teaching at Mills College in Oakland, California. Mitchell had been on faculty at University of California–Irvine and is currently chair of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Reed has remained in Chicago, where he continues running such venues as Constellation and Hungry Brain. Those distances have not been much of an ongoing concern.

“We’ve all gotten increasingly more busy since 2015, that’s for sure,” Reid said. “We would like to play more together, but it’s where we all with our lives at the moment.”

Still, the pandemic that struck in early 2020 kept everyone apart in ways that no one had anticipated. Through it all, the trio wrote and the resulting compositions constitute most of …And Then There’s This. Gradually, Reid and Reed were able to woodshed their new pieces in Chicago with saxophonist Hunter Diamond. After a few more months, Artifacts reconvened and attempted to record. A few tries were unsatisfying until they returned home for a session in a makeshift studio at Constellation over Thanksgiving. As Reed said, “It’s my house. It’s also easy for folks to feel at home and not be too concerned about things.”

That comfort highlights the group’s flexibility all through …And Then There’s This. They continue paying homage to the AACM through interpretations of pieces by Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams and the two pieces that arose from group improvisation are dedicated to the memories of Joseph Jarman and Alvin Fielder. But the emphasis here is on the considerable idiomatic and emotional range among Artifacts’ own composers. Nicole Mitchell’s contributions illustrate this diversity. Her joyous “Blessed” is based on a simple dance form with a pocket groove, but “Reflections” takes a different route.

“‘Reflections’ is kind of moody,” Mitchell said. “Then it kind of moves around, from moody to angry to funny or silly, playfully moody, then it gets emphatic, then it gets silly, joyous at the end. The patterns on that one are kind of tricky. The form is not a traditional form on that piece. From one place to another, it’s like taking a trip, but you don’t go home. You just stay out there.”

Reid also contributed two pieces that reflect diverging moods. Her “Song For Helena” is a minor-key ballad that she wrote as a tribute to her late mother-in-law. The feel throughout “In Response To” is lighter but also comes from her own approach.

“I just always end up playing tritones on the cello, they’re comfortable,” Reid said. “I was just moving around and came up with that kind of groove. I just wanted to write a fun playing tune. I was just fooling around with tritone, because it lays so comfortably on the cello. That’s what I’m gravitating to even when I’m improvising. You don’t have to be so serious all the time. I’m super silly. I used to be more shy about it, but now I don’t care.”

Reed, who comes across as more serious in conversation, also included tricky passages in his uptempo “Pleasure Palace,” knowing that this group can navigate the turns.

“Generally, ‘Pleasure Palace’ is in 4,” Reed said. “There is a bar of 5 that flips everything around in the melody part. The little break — that’s a bar of 5 that makes it feel a little strange. I was writing these little puzzle pieces to make people scratch their heads, like ‘Something’s wrong here.’ In the solo section of it, Tomeka has a lot more free rein to do what she wants, and so do I. So, I can do weird rhythmic improvising.”

While several AACM artists were known for conveying pointed social messages, such ideas are also on the minds of Artifacts, even if they are not overtly stated. Mitchell expressed that consciousness when she discussed the album’s title.

“There are all of the intense, life-and-death things happening in the world,” Mitchell said. “We’re constantly, dealing with the virus, police brutality, crisis of what’s happening throughout the world. The idea of putting out an album in the midst of all that, it’s like, ‘Well, then there’s this.’ We know it’s not the most important thing in the world, but music can help us stay centered on positive energy. We have all these things going on around us, all of these hard choices we’re forced to make day by day, but we also need time to just listen.”

Staying together as a musical family, where each member has equal levels of responsibility while retaining their individual identities, also makes a statement. Since the group’s beginning, these roles have tended to include Mitchell and Reid as the eldest and youngest sister while Reed described himself as “the middle child.”

Those ties became clear as the members of Artifacts spoke for this article. Bonds transcended geographic distance. At the time, Reid was on campus at Mills, Mitchell was at her home in North Carolina and Reed was traveling in Berlin. They all expressed shared perspectives about each other and how their affinity meant that they felt no pressure in planning for 2022.

“We’ve been doing this for such a long time, having this long relationship, it’s not going anywhere so we can take our time,” Reed said. “Other projects or other relationships may have more of a time stamp on them. A band or a moment happened, and they’ll say, ‘Let’s do that again,’ and then it doesn’t happen, ever. With us, there’s never a concern that it’s not going to keep happening. It will.” DB



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July 2022
Sean Jones
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