Mitchener And Yarde Break Blues Boundaries As Black Avant-Garde Comes To Cafe OTO

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The blues is a lived and living truth, as much as a genre. It may be coded in chord changes and rhythms, but what precedes and follows these sounds, namely how people talk, think and act, means something. This gig is a potent, provocative event that underlines the blues as a foundation for progressive black culture, and though billed as Elaine Mitchener and Jason Yarde co-leading a band on a set of Vocal Classics Of The Black Avant-Garde, the overriding impression is that the mercurial, experimental, wanderlust character of pre-war ‘Negro’ folk music still decisively shapes its modernist outgrowths.

When Neil Charles’ walking bass and Mark Sanders’ deep shuffle on the drums mark a climatic moment in proceedings there is a clear reference to centuries-old rights of swing, yet this ageless strategy packs a mighty punch because of the way it is framed by the invention and emotional charge of these players and their colleagues, trumpeter Byron Wallen, pianist Alexander Hawkins, saxophonist Yarde and vocalist Mitchener. They convincingly show the blues as an artery within the flexible, mutative body of black music, where sonic and metric bloodstreams are thrillingly unpredictable, with a pulse that smartly follows Beaver Harris’ ideal of ‘ragtime to no time’. 

Mitchener’s mixture of guttural, gravelly textures and crystalline articulation; Yarde’s braying, bucking alto, almost an evocation on the horn of reggae’s dread warning that "de fence cyan hold, too much bull inna de pen", and his seamless unison playing with Wallen; Hawkins’ splintered motifs and timbral escarpments – all these starkly vivid sounds move in and out of focus as the band changes shape, scaling down to trios and duos before coming back up to a quintet. The years of shared experience of the players in many British ensembles tells.

The music is rooted in the fertile U.S. soil of AEC, Shepp, Dolphy and Jeanne Lee, among others, but there is a gutsy earthiness to the performance that is contemporary and personal. From the joyous, jockeying funk of the opener to the strains of fiery anger and misty tenderness that follow the commitment is unbowed. The appearance of American poet Dante Micheaux, who does a fine reading of Joseph Jarman’s 'Non Cognitive Aspects Of The City' among several other pieces, brings more substance to the table. But the crucial moment of the night is the shift on to black British territory, through the intoning of words of wisdom from West Indian warrior intellectuals, Stuart Hall, Louise Bennett and Sam Selvon. It is uplifting and empowering to hear this ‘colonisation in reverse’ amid such a dubwise tapestry of sounds, and connect these sentiments to the word Haiti that is stamped on Mitchener’s t-shirt. The world’s first republique negre is still paying the price for daring to resist European rule. That’s the blues.

Other significant details reveal the ensemble’s literal and lateral thinking. Mitchener repeats the mantra "the maximum capacity of this room is 180", but that may not be recognition of the fact that this gig is sold out. She seems more interested in locking us into congregation and reflection on how many souls, or nations of millions, it takes to move us forward beyond simplistic notions of black and white.

The evening ends with Yarde playing a ghostly recording of his alto on the fly, so we can savour a homemade memory for the fire next time.

Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo by Dawid Laskowski