Live review

REVIEW: Vocal Classics of the Black Avant-Garde at Cafe Oto

Elaine Mitchener, with Neil Charles, Mark Sanders and Jason Yarde at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2019. All Rights Reserved

Vocal Classics of the Black Avant-Garde
(Cafe Oto, 7 January 2019; review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

When vocalist Elaine Mitchener’s hand-picked group first performed Vocal Classics of the Black Avant-Garde in 2017 at the London Contemporary Music Festival (reviewed here)  there was a clearly structured programme with each of the six works self-contained, identified by title, and relatively faithful to the originals in their intense interpretations.

Revisiting this significant oeuvre, the same ensemble – Mitchener with Jason Yarde (saxophones and musical director), Byron Wallen (trumpet), Neil Charles (bass), Mark Sanders (percussion), poet Dante Micheaux, with Alexander Hawkins (piano) taking the place of Robert Mitchell – has digested, invested in and explored the field with such commitment and intensity that some in their new selection of works re-emerged almost unrecognisable, especially as they were segued without breaks or explanatory assistance for the audience.

As with accomplished actors, the musicians lived and breathed the agonising context and content to which the compositions and poems gave access, and in performance these landmark statements were presented in a fresh format with the originals as stepping stones to contemporary interpretations.

Whereas the originals pushed the envelope of their times and, on listening to recordings where available, still unnerve convincingly, the interpretations presented at Cafe Oto pushed today’s envelope in equally uncomfortable directions as, by implication, they reflected and acknowledged the issues in which society remains deeply mired.

Leading the group in from the back of the house, Yarde’s mouthpiece squawking bird calls set the stage for an explosive start with percussive fireworks from Hawkins on keyboards, raw, farmyard honking from Yarde on alto, searing brass fire from Wallen and vocals right out on the edge from Mitchener, suddenly morphing to near silence with Sanders and Charles taking the pace right down, and Yarde merely tapping the sax’s keys to background Mitchener’s tense meanderings.

Sanders’ gamelan tones and Charles’ bowed bass defined the underlying texture of Bob James’s Personal Statement aka Jim Crow, which had Eric Dolphy on the two extraordinary recordings of the composition made in 1964 with its vocals from counter-tenor David Schwartz, giving Yarde, switching to baritone sax, and Mitchener the opportunity to pay energetic homage to Dolphy, who embraced such challenges with intelligence, virtuosity and great gusto.

The ensuing compelling, cacophonous group chaos was overtaken by Wallen’s muted trumpet tones, Charles’ micro-toned bass and a spell on maracas from Sanders leading in to Micheaux’s poised delivery of Joseph Jarman’s music-flushed word-scape, Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City, keeping true to Jarman’s diction on his early Delmark recording, articulating “The hell of where we are”, “The city… where no one is more alone than any other”, concluding with the ominous “…non-cognitive doom”.

Archie Shepp’s milestone, On this Night (If that Great Day Would Come), followed on without a pause, with Mitchener sensitively articulating the tribute to campaigner W. E. B. Du Bois before the group dived into the piece’s romping blues passages with burning passion, kicking all the way!

Fragments and poems were stirred in to the mix of heritages, divides and injustices – “Come celebrate… Lexington 96 Street Stop…”; “Guinea Bissau… Mozambique”; “Angola, maximum security prison, Louisiana… my wife died and you hand me a ticket for drinking red pop”; “Motherland, the give and take of liberty”; with Micheaux returning to prose in celebration of “queen and country” with an extract (as identified by a friend) possibly from Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners with words receding behind Yarde’s sampled saxophone layers, poignantly affirming “The place in which I stand is the land in which I must be free”.

All this before Hawkins tied up the evening in glorious style with a massive, boisterous, boogie-woogie, samba cocktail.

Next time round, Moor Mother, with her coruscating, visceral poetry, could be an ideal partner on a double bill (as she was in 2017).

Neil Charles at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2019. All Rights Reserved

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