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«At Earth School»
«What Else Is There?»

About a year ago, two singular free improvisers – American flutist-vocalist Nicole Mitchell and prolific British pianist Alexander Hawkins met and performed an inspired set of music at London’s legendary Café OTO in October 2022. At Earth School documents most of the music performed at this special set. The album is released in a limited edition of 200 cassettes (that feature only six out of the nine pieces), and a disc and download option that documents the whole performance.

At Earth School is the debut album of Mitchell and Hawkins as a duo and it collects the majority of the music they performed at Café OTO. The title of the album hints about the breadth of the music Mitchell and Hawkins performed and improvised during this performance. The first three pieces are structured like a suite where Mitchell and Hawkins move naturally, effortlessly and playfully between a loose but uncompromising, contemporary texture to a lyrical improvisation and a fiery free jazz onslaught, bursting with urgent ideas and performing with immediate, close interplay. Mitchell recites her poetry in «What Are You Afraid Of» and sets the liberating, spiritual vibe of this set, leading directly into the duo’s imaginative, hyper-folky interpretation of the traditional Afro-American spiritual «There is a Balm in Gilead». The rest of the set deepens this contemplative vibe but they conclude with the brilliant «Flicker, Bounce, Glide» with Hawkins shifting rhythms on piano, balanced by Mitchell’s mixture of singing and darting flute.

What Else Is There? documents Hawkins’ recording with young Filipino-American, Bay Area-based guitarist-composer Karl Evangelista (who had arrived at the recording session mere hours before downbeat) and the powerful rhythm section of Mid-Westernd double bass player Tatsu Aoki and Chicagoan drummer hero Michael Zerang at FAB Recording Studio in Chicago in December 2021. Hawkins already performed with this outfit in September 2021 and a day after in another Evangelista-led sextet, both performances at Elastic Arts space in Chicago. The quartet reconvened in September 2023 to celebrate the release of the album at Elastic Arts in Chicago. Hawkins also plays in another Evangelista’s international, free improvising band, Apura (Tagalog for «Very Urgent») which connects «the incendiary free music of the 1960s to the activist improvisation of the 21st century» and released its debut, self-titled album in 2020 (Astral Spirits, with British sax player Trevor Watts and South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo). During breaks in the recording session, the conversation turned to music and family, two threads that seemed to dominate the waking lives of the four musicians involved. Pondering this notion, Aoki asked, «What else is there?» and it became the title of the recording. The album is dedicated to Evangelista’s partner, Rei Scampavia (who plays with him in the art rock duo Grex), and his firstborn child, Malcolm Louis Scampavia Evangelista, named after Malcolm X and Louis Moholo-Moholo.

Evangelista’s open-ended compositions and the quartet’s free improvisations highlight intense and energetic, inspiring and exciting dialogic dynamics. Evangelista says that they offer «some of the best of what I have to offer, marrying spur-of-the-moment intimacy with moments of unexpected gravity». This democratic quartet enjoys the strong personalities and the extensive experience of Hawkins, Aoki and Zerang and stresses Evangelista’s idiosyncratic voice as a guitarist and composer who is well-versed in the legacy of jazz, Filipino folk music and contemporary, experimental music. His interplay with Hawkins feels magical. It is organic, open and embracing so many ideas and references.

Eyal Hareuveni 

Nicole Mitchell (flute, vocals), Alexander Hawkins (piano, bells), Karl Evangelista (guitar), Tatsu Aoki (double bass), Michael Zerang (drums)