REVIEW/ PHOTOS: Alexander Hawkins – Elaine Mitchener Quartet – Uproot album launch at Kings Place

Elaine Mitchener and Neil Charles
Photo credit and © Monika S. Jakubowska

Alexander Hawkins – Elaine Mitchener Quartet – Uproot album launch
(Kings Place Hall Two. 12 January 2018. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

Clapping, slapping, stuttering into action, Elaine Mitchener is centre stage. She is surrounded by a trio doing a fantastic job of sounding like they’re clutching their instruments while falling down a flight of stairs.

Together, they are Alexander Hawkins – Elaine Mitchener Quartet. And as ever, first impressions aren’t always reliable – very soon it becomes clear that they are in fact falling down this imaginary flight of stairs together in neatly composed coordination, and that the format is not a familiar trio plus singer, but very much a quartet, with Mitchener a multi-instrumentalist ready to sing or speak, to (almost) inaudibly snap open and closed her mouth, and to make any range of sounds in between.

The UpRoot album launch at Kings Place displayed the whole gamut of moods, from the tender retelling of Patty Waters’ Why is Love Such a Funny Thing, or Jeanne Lee’s more theatrical narrative The Miracle, blending in to an operatic climax.

Alexander Hawkins
Photo credit and © Monika S. Jakubowska

Yet it is on Alexander Hawkins’ own title track composition that the threads are truly tied together – an intense bebop rhythm trio led by Hawkins’ distinctive wide-ranging style, filtered through the texture provided by Mitchener on top, with occasional Zappa-esque moments (such as the atonal revelation that “It’s true I cannot see my face because it is always facing”). Joy acts as a palate cleanser, a clean resolution of subtle bass, and cymbals brushed or lightly rapped by the deft knuckles of Stephen Davis on the stool.

Neil Charles
Photo credit and © Monika S. Jakubowska

The spiritual OM-SE draws on the rich talent of Neil Charles, who opens with sweeping bass coupling Mitchener’s siren calls, occasionally muddled with brief bouts of vocal transient tics, before Charles slips into a bowed improvisational moment and the relaxing walking swing of Environment Music walks in. This is a journey into the mundanities of someone’s life: the box of receipts, tired bras, loose change in many kitchen drawers, mains leads that work sometimes. It highlights how likeable a prospect the quartet really are. The warm glimpses across the band, the pats on the shoulder as they walk past one another; Hawkins genuinely enthused and humbled to have an audience to play to, and Mitchener presenting like the sort of wildcard friend who you can introduce to anyone, and make any evening entertaining.

A fleeting Archie Shepp revisit of Blasé, arranged as it is here, is a song that feels remarkably of the moment. Without the melancholy soft melodic introduction of Shepp’s tenor, the Jeanne Lee lyrics sound like a stark warning, and Mitchener’s pressing, accusatory, almost wounded storytelling delivery on top of the atmospheric percussion makes for a powerful unsettling piece.

Listened to live and recorded, the quartet are subtly different things. The record feels more a collection of vignettes – brief emotional episodes coupling a tonal language and thought together. Live they are a more amorphous beast, blurring song boundaries and only coming up for air at the interval and the end. The audience, so acclimatised to the continuous waves of sound and vision and abrupt changes in attitude, was happy to sit in silence watching a motionless band on stage for 10-15 long seconds, before a grin from Mitchener signalled that the set was over.

Stephen Davis
Photo credit and © Monika S. Jakubowska

Part of the mesmerising performance is the stress that Mitchener and Hawkins can generate between them, formed from an enticing unpredictability. Directives, an avant-garde journey flitting from instructions to questions through an astounding array of sounds, was opened and reprieved throughout the set to bring the audience back to a certain atmosphere, and on record closely accompanied by the earnest overtures of I’ll Meet You There.

Flipping between moments of clean organisation, swallowed sounds and run together fingers; UpRoot is composed as an epic struggle; a constant tension between clutter and clarity, wrought with emotion. Yet another unique feather in the cap of the diverse careers of Mitchener and Hawkins.

The final applause
L-R: Hawkins, Mitchener. Charles. Davis
Photo credit and © Monika S. Jakubowska

LINK: Uproot is released on Intakt Records

Categories: miscellaneous

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