The Wire – March 2019
Vocal Classics Of The Black Avant Garde – Cafe Oto, London, UK
Bleep x The Wire: The Rolling Calf – Bleep X, London, UK
“Digging deep into their own history is exactly the long run up Mitchener and her ensemble need to make their great musical leaps into the future.”
Great title, this: the term Vocal Classics invokes a joyous spirit of celebration that runs completely counter to the usual lofty thoughts implied by the – for some – still intimidating phrase Avant Garde, Black or otherwise. And from the off the project’s initiator, voice and movement artist Elaine Mitchener sets the carnival tone, along with its musical director Jason Yarde, Sun Ra-style leading their crack ensemble out of Cafe Oto’s kitchen cum dressing room honking, hawking, rattling and squawking on anything to hand as they weave their way through the crowded house to the stage. The concert has barely begun and right away the audience are happily sliding into the daze of future past triggered by the night’s seeming nostalgia for the truly great musical breakthrough moments ticked off in the programme’s setlist.
Any puzzling contradictions planted in listeners’ minds are immediately resolved by the opening song “The Maximum Capacity Of The Room”, composed in 1967 by Jeanne Lee and Gunter Hampel, through which Mitchener directly addresses the 180 spectators in attendance, wrenching the song out of history and dropping it in the present. It might be a cold, rainy night in early January, but Cafe Oto is indeed operating at maximum capacity. The concert’s sold right out, with disappointed punters being turned away at the door.
Mitchener, Yarde et al have staged Vocal Classics Of The Black Avant Garde once before, at London Contemporary Music Festival 2017, when they performed a 60 minute song suite consisting of 1960s and 70s music drawn from the US jazz avant garde and fired up by the era’s (ongoing) civil rights issues. These included works by the late, great vocalist, composer artist and educator Jeanne Lee (“Maximum Capacity”; “In These Last Days” from her 1979 album Nuba, with Andrew Cyrille and Jimmy Lyons), Bob James and Eric Dolphy (“A Personal Statement” aka “Jim Crow”,1964), Joseph Jarman (“Non-Cognitive Aspects Of The City”, 1967) Archie Shepp (“On This Night”, 1967), and more. At Cafe Oto, that hour-long set is virtually doubled in length to include a version of Yarde’s “Windrush Suite”, but also to allow the brilliant band assembled by Yarde and Mitchener for the premiere Vocal Classics performance to stretch out and take the music to places it might never have been been before, thereby restoring its Black Avant Garde status! With the exception of Alexander Hawkins depping for the absent Robert Mitchell on piano, the project reprises the LCMF ensemble of Neil Charles on double bass, Mark Sanders on drums, Byron Wallen on trumpet and Yarde on saxophone and pedals, with London based US poet Dante Micheaux joining Mitchener on vocals. As before, tonight’s show fires on the twin energies of 1960s/70s US civil rights and radical music movements, but now combined with the spirit of resistance and celebration of black Britain, as channelled through the experiences of the UK players performing tonight’s expanded programme.
Regardless of which side of the Atlantic the music’s coming from, the underlying theme is perhaps rooted in the core thesis of the US black civil rights campaigner WEB Du Bois, subject of Archie Shepp’s 1967 tribute “On This Night” performed tonight. “The problem of the 20th century,” wrote Du Bois, “is the problem of the colour-line.” Over two hours, Mitchener and co find ever more imaginative ways of tearing loose from centuries of binding racism tied up in that colour-line, be it invoked in the freedom spiritual of their Bob James/Eric Dolphy “Jim Crow” tribute, or the harrowing tracts about contemporary alienation of Lee’s “In These Last Days”, as sung by Mitchener, and Jarman’s “Non-Cognitive Aspects Of The City”, as spoken by Micheaux.
Musically and spiritually, the ensemble have equipped themselves well with the means of resistance to the transatlantic legacy of racism passed down since the days of slavery. Ten days after their triumphant Vocal Classics performance, Mitchener, Charles and Yarde convene as The Rolling Calf trio to perform a 45 minute set at a Bleep X The Wire night in online retailer Bleep’s popup shop just around the corner from Cafe Oto. The name references a chain-rattling half man half goat creature of Jamaican folklore, and their continuous song-free improvisation underscores the musical freedom principles guiding the full ensemble’s Vocal Classics set, with each of the three breaking loose from rigid instrumental conventions, Mitchener’s ululating throatcalls as likely to provide any passage’s core riff, while Yarde variously pedals and cajoles his saxophones to speak in different voices and Charles saws, plucks and beats roaring acts of melancholy defiance from his bass. Combined with the new routes opened out of the past by their Vocal Classics colleagues ten days earlier, there’s really no holding them. Digging deep into their own history is exactly the long run up Mitchener and her ensemble need to make their great musical leaps into the future.