London Contemporary Music Festival - Vocal Classics of the Black Avant-Garde

In its foundational ties to the afro-spirituals of the late 19th Century, Jazz music holds within its essence the radical power of African American self-expression. Nowhere is this latent intensity more apparent than in the politically-charged avant-garde works of the 1960s and 1970s. Contemporaneous to the Black Arts Movement exemplified by the performance poetry of artists such as Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou, Jazz musicians formulated their own responses to the rampant racial discrimination and segregation occurring in America at the time.

As part of the London Contemporary Music Festival, some of the UK’s finest Jazz players assembled to perform a selection of these ‘vocal classics’. They emphatically reimagined the fraught political context of the original compositions within the racial and political divisions of the present day. Led by saxophonist and composer Jason Yarde, the group opened with the rhythmic bombast of the Gunter Hampel Group and Jeanne Lee’s 1970 spoken word release 'The Capacity of this Room'. Dominated by experimental vocalist Elaine Mitchener’s frantic scatting over Lee’s original improvisations, the composition stayed true to its title; it filled the cavernous industrial Ambika P3 venue while holding the power of all six performers with an unpredictable unity.

This collective power continued throughout the 60-minute performance, including on another Jeanne Lee composition, 'In These Last Days'. Here Mitchener showcased her impeccable range, paring down her vocalisations to croaking scratches of breath and urgency as trumpeter Byron Walden accompanied with fractal squawks and screeches of his own. Both trumpet and voice were utilised as vehicles for this human breath, materialising un/natural sound.

The experimentation continued on an interpretation of Eric Dolphy’s operatic anti-segregation anthem Jim Crow. Mitchener’s vocals this time interplayed with Yarde’s rhythmic bursts on saxophone, while pianist Robert Mitchelland drummer Mark Sanders maintained a patchwork backing of abstract textures. Removing restraint, on Archie Shepp’s On This Night, Yarde’s bebop freneticism was showcased in full force, reaching reed-breaking intensity at points.

For the rendition of Joseph Jarman’s Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City, the group was joined by poet Dante Micheaux for a dramatic reading of the composition’s accompanying poem. Micheaux’s words formed a psycho-geographic verbal collage as the instrumentation replicated the frantic sprawl of the urban environment. Closing on a deconstructed version of Les McCann’s Compared to What, the political charge of the evening’s performance was driven home. As Gene McDaniel’s lyrics on governmental hypocrisy and social inequality repeat, reality can only be compared to itself, and Jazz’s capacity to evoke the human spirit of protest is a comparison worthy of repetition.

[This piece was published in EZH Magazine on 11/12/17]