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Nicole Mitchell explores the story of her mother-- through music

Howard Reich

11:22 AM EDT, September 5, 2013

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Virtuoso flutist Nicole Mitchell was a key player in Chicago music for more than two decades until she moved to California in 2011 to accept a teaching position, but the city keeps luring her back.

This weekend, for instance, Mitchell will return here to present the world premiere of a project that is particularly close to her: "JBM: Images Beyond."

The initials stand for Joan Beard Mitchell, the flutist's mother, an artist and poet who died 30 years ago at age 50 and left an enormous impression on her gifted daughter.

"JBM: Images Beyond" explores Joan Beard Mitchell's remarkable and often heart-breaking story, but in a novel way: It's billed as "a theatrical concert" that will feature a dramatic reading by actor/vocalist Coco Elysses alongside Mitchell's Black Earth Strings.

Elysses will deliver words penned by Mitchell's mother but fashioned into a script by the flutist, who will lead the performance of her original score. Her mother's art work will be on view, serving as a kind of environment for the show, which plays at 3 p.m. Sunday at Studio 914, which is at 914 N. California Ave.

And though the performance piece doesn't explicitly trace the narrative of Joan Beard Mitchell's life, it "expresses her struggle," says Nicole Mitchell in an email.

Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Mitchell's mother immersed herself in the city's cultural scene, graduated early from Morgan Park High School and attended DePaul University before interrupting her studies to marry in 1953 and move with her husband to various spots across the country. From 1970-76 she flourished as an artist in Syracuse, N.Y., drawing accolades for her work. The Syracuse Herald Journal wrote on July 8, 1973 that Mitchell "rejects the limitations of a definitive style … ranging from poetic landscapes with delicate figures to primative crudeness in a series of black portraits and figure studies … (and) makes strong social comments," according to Nicole Mitchell's background material for the show.

But when the family moved to Southern California in 1976, Joan Beard Mitchell found herself stymied.

"In fact, the entire family experienced an onslaught of racial hostility and rejection, having moved to an all-white suburban neighborhood in Orange County," writes Nicole Mitchell in her background material for the show. Though her mother completed her B.A. in English at California State University, Fullerton, in 1979, she suffered periods of depression and died suddenly in 1983.

That tragic event changed the course of Nicole Mitchell's life.

"When she died, I felt that she didn't get a chance to complete her dream of sharing her creative work with the world, so I decided that I would continue her path as an artist," says Mitchell in an e-mail.

"I've been wanting to do this exhibit and project for many years, and yet it was so intimidating and painful to attempt. It's an extremely intimidating goal, to represent my mother, when she's not here for me to talk to, or to give her opinion. I want to honor her and her work properly, and also express with honesty what she has left as evidence of her mind and spirit.

"I'm learning so much more about her, and myself," continues Nicole Mitchell. "For example ... my own aesthetic as a creative musician has been 'to bridge the familiar with the unknown,' (and) I knew that it was subconsciously a continuation of my mother's own aesthetic. But to see her words basically expressing parallel ideas, that's been mind-blowing."

Mitchell clearly is on a journey of discovery and self-discovery, seeking to understand her mother's triumphs and defeats and decoding how those events shaped her own life and muse.

Naturally, she has chosen to deal with these difficult issues through art, in effect merging her music with her mother's words and visuals. The score, says Mitchell, plays a larger role in "JBM: Images Beyond" than it would in a more conventional play, serving not as accompaniment but "as a sonic manifestation of her creativity, words, feelings and ideas," she says. "The music is inspired by some of the environments she created in her paintings, blending form and formlessness, real and imagined."

Specifically, Mitchell says she draws on a wide range of musical languages, from African-American spirituals, soul, blues and avant-garde jazz to contemporary classical music. Certainly Mitchell has tapped noteworthy Chicago players to bring this music to life, including cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Joshua Abrams, guitarist Buddy Fambro, percussionist JoVia Armstrong and harpist Rashida Black.

"The harp has an especially important role (in the show) because it expresses elegance and otherworldliness, which were important qualities of Joan Beard Mitchell," says Nicole Mitchell. "The harp has a haunting quality that also gives the piece a special sound. The music sometimes rebels against the words of Joan, expressing her inner struggle for happiness and courage to continue her path."

Mitchell regard's Sunday's premiere as the next step in her odyssey, and this first performance should tell her a great deal about where she can take the piece. She says she could see developing it as a play that more directly traces the key events of her mother's life but also as a traveling exhibition and performance piece that could find a home in galleries and museums.

No matter what happens, though, "JBM: Images Beyond" already has had impact.

"This has been a transformational project," says Mitchell, whose bravery in taking it on surely deserves a round of applause.

Also worth hearing

Judy Roberts: The admired singer-pianist closes her summer residency in her hometown with a weekend engagement, after which she'll play festivals in California before returning home to Arizona. She'll lead a quartet with saxophonist Greg Fishman, her husband. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 and 8 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $20-$45; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

Joshua Abrams: The indefatigable bassist has anchored uncounted experimental bands in Chicago and beyond but here leads the Natural Information Society, with Lisa Alvarado on harmonium, Ben Boye on autoharp, Emmett Kelly on electric guitar and Frank Rosaly on drums. 9:30 p.m. Friday at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $10; constellation-chicago.com

Marquis Hill: A busy young Chicago trumpeter, Hill will offer a sneak preview of music from his third album as leader, "The Poet," which features original compositions. 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $10-$15; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com

Bill McFarland's Chicago Horns: McFarland's front line – in various incarnations – has been lighting fires for years and here returns to the weekly series presented by the non-profit Hyde Park Jazz Society. 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday at Room 43, 1043 E. 43d St.; $10; hydeparkjazzsociety.com

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Nicole Mitchell's 'JBM: Images Beyond'

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Studio 914 at 914 N. California Ave.

Suggested donation: $10; 773-340-9140 studio914.wordpress.com