Jazzwise Magazine – 19 June 2019

Mitchener and Yarde make moves with Jeanne Lee’s legacy at Kings Place

Kevin Le Gendre

“Mitchener also makes a virtue of this ‘out of many threads one fabric’ aesthetic but, crucially, she brings her own character and idiosyncrasies to bear on Lee’s repertoire.”


The Venus Unwrapped season at Kings Place has been shining ‘a new light on music by women’ since the beginning of the year, and this concert draws a significant figure out of the darkness. Black British ‘vocalist-movement’ artist Elaine Mitchener celebrates the work of the African-American singer, poet and educator Jeanne Lee, who died in 2000, and whose vital contribution to the music of Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp and Gunter Hampel among others, has been largely overlooked. As was the case with her ‘Classics Of The Black Avant-Garde’ gig at Café OTO earlier in the year, Mitchener leads a band comprising saxophonist-beatmaker Jason Yarde, pianist Alexander Hawkins, double bassist Neil Charles and drummer Mark Sanders, with cellist Anton Lukoszevieze a new addition to the ensemble.

Capturing Lee’s spirit is a daunting task because her identity was unique. She blurred the line between sung vocal, spoken word and pure sound exploration with such skill that these three disciplines formed a logical whole. Mitchener also makes a virtue of this ‘out of many threads one fabric’ aesthetic but, crucially, she brings her own character and idiosyncrasies to bear on Lee’s repertoire, which includes pieces from the mid 60s to the late 1990s. Mitchener’s physical exertions, from the upward stretches to skipping dance steps, are inextricable from the shifting timbres of her voice, and the fearless interpretation of the music essentially brings forth ever more personal manifestations of herself.

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The band is deeply responsive, and the variety of the pulse of the music – from teasing rubtao to sharp ostinato – brilliantly held together by Sanders’ rhythmic adaptability, ensures that the music goes ‘in’ and ‘out’ of all manner of schools and traditions with real coherence. Mitchener pushes her wordless vocal explorations to their creative limits, making single elongated syllables, sighs, gurgles and half breaths a spontaneous micro-concerto, and these moments fit into a continuum of narration and ‘straight’ singing, such as ‘In These Last Days’ or ‘The Seagulls of Kiristiansand’ that is very affecting. There is a crystalline quality, a limpidity in Mitchener’s melodic voice that is striking in its own right, but as is clear when she opens the second half of the concert with an extended solo, it is the movement between the figurative and abstract that makes her sound canvas compelling. Interestingly, this range of voices is enhanced by Yarde’s live sampling, which has the effect of making her original lines waver between the sublime and sinister, growing to the heavens and receding to the shadows.

The day after this concert the Daphne Oram Awards took place in order to mark the contribution of the unsung female hero of the Radiophonic Workshop as a pioneer of contemporary electronica, and this union of Mitchener’s voice and Yarde’s artful new technology could not have been a more apt prelude. Then again, the theatre of these moments is well complemented by simple but effect pieces of stagecraft that add a sense of ceremony to the occasion. In real terms that means the members of the band enter the auditorium in procession, with each person clapping to create a train of percussion that gives way to the music in earnest. This can be read in many different ways, but even though the choreography unfolds in a tight space it is a strong thrust ‘forward’, which is what Jamaican audiences are known to say instead of ‘encore’.

– Kevin Le Gendre

– Photos by Dawid Dawid Laskowski 

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