Financial Times – 13 May 2024

Elaine Mitchener delivers poetry and free jazz in a riotous London show

Mike Hobart

“The first night of performance artist/vocalist Elaine Mitchener’s two-day Cafe Oto residency delivered articulate spoken-word, shapeshifting sonics and intense free jazz.”

The artist and vocalist’s Cafe Oto residency featured spoken-word performance and improvised music

Elaine Mitchener at Cafe Oto with Neil Charles (bass), Mark Sanders (drums) and Xhosa Cole (saxophone) © Roger Thomas

The first night of performance artist/vocalist Elaine Mitchener’s two-day Cafe Oto residency delivered articulate spoken-word, shapeshifting sonics and intense free jazz. Organised as a series of musical tableaux, the evening presented through-improvised ensembles. The etched prose poems of opening act Jay Bernard set a high bar and Mitchener’s extraordinary conjunction of growls, murmurs, clicks and operatics shook the house in a riotous second-half finale.
The evening began with Bernard, barely audible, nonchalantly whistling snippets of tune. Sampled, doctored and harmonised, it gained substance and tension when multi-instrumentalist Femi Oriogun-Williams added a low rumble of electronica. Scene set, Bernard and Oriogun-Williams combined thought-provoking spoken-word with sparse sonics ranging from a single dense chord on electric guitar to solo clarinet.
Bernard’s writing probes deep into the complexities and tensions of the British African-Caribbean experience, which he conjures with a mix of oration, rhythmic blank verse and the everyday. The Windrush ship which brought Caribbean immigrants to the UK after the second world war surfaced, in a recorded interview, but not in an obvious way — “Did you speak to your parents about the Windrush?” was the question. The reply — “We didn’t have that conversation” — was then spun by Bernard into poetic form. Fifteen minutes in, the sonics were expanded by bassist Neil Charles and Xhosa Cole on flute, piccolo and tenor sax, though lyrics remained and lean lines remained intact.
Poet Roy Claire Potter followed, accompanied by drummer Mark Sanders and Mandhira de Saram on violin. Potter’s lyrics started with spaced single words — body parts for the first piece, a fire for the second, an expletive for the third — which then merged, accelerated and cohered into narrative form. Violin scraped and shimmered, Sanders rattled and tapped in support and introduced new episodes with the muffled chime of a giant gong.
Elaine Mitchener’s residency also marked the release of her album Solo Throat, but here she performed with two ensembles. The first featured dancer Dam Van Huynh and was founded on the trenchant musicality of Pat Thomas’s electronica and control of the club’s concert grand. Here, Mitchener’s eerie scrapings and quickfire clicks seemed to pirouette round Huynh’s zombie-like twitches and slow-motion bends, the post-apocalyptic mood amplified by the pithy abstractions of keyboards and voice.
Mitchener’s second ensemble was a glorious free-jazz rumble that bought together all the musicians who had performed on the night. As the piece ebbed and flowed from ballad to blast, an extra layer of spontaneity was added by poets Bernard and Potter handing scraps of text to Mitchener for a new improvised theme — “Slow drag of time” was one, rendered with syllables stretched and consonants snapped. “They don’t have an answer” developed a sombre shape.
Bassist Charles and drummer Sanders are the UK’s go-to free jazz rhythm section, and here they locked into Thomas’s whirlwind pyrotechnics and supple light-touch grooves. Cole chirruped on flute and brooded on tenor sax, Mitchener switched from vibrato-laden swoops to grumbles and moans. As the piece reached an emotional peak, the audience joined in with ecstatic whoops and shouts, then a fade into introductions, a snare-drum tap and Mitchener announcing matter-of-factly: “Thank you and goodnight.”


14 May 2024

petermargasak – 13 May 2024

14 May 2024

The Quietus – 14 May 2024