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AT SCHOOL in Tower Hamlets in east London, Elaine Mitchener’s flute teacher was a jazz and free-improvising musician who introduced her to the greats — from musicians Charlie Parker to John Coltrane, vocalists from Billie Holiday to Janet Baker and composers such as Bela Bartok and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Thus her inspiration, she stresses, is “environmental. I am definitely not a jazz singer.” As well as a vocalist, she’s a movement artist and composer who's been described the Finanacial Times as a “genre-crossing virtuoso.”
When she was making her compelling album Uproot with pianist Alex Hawkins, double bassist Neil Charles and drummer Stephen Davis, she told Hawkins that she’d only sing in a quartet if her voice was regarded as an instrument. He understood.
“I’m not interested in vocalist plus trio,” she says. “Uproot describes destabilising energy, interrogating conceptions of what an experimental jazz quartet ought to sound like.”
Growing up in a Jamaica-rooted and music-loving family, she was brought up on “a heavy dose” of ska, reggae and dub from her father.
“Both my parents sang,” she says. “Dad played guitar — and clarinet, kind of! — and my elder brother seemed to play every instrument of the orchestra, courtesy of the much-missed free instrumental lesson scheme of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA).
“I followed on, playing recorder, piano, flute and French horn at secondary school, again thanks to ILEA.”
Mitchener honed her craft at the Seventh Day Adventist church she attended from the age of 11, where she was exposed to gospel music.
“To watch young people like myself play and sing with such incredible musicality and maturity was truly inspiring,” she recalls.
“Musicians I worked with then have since become professional and have lucrative careers.”
She sees herself as part of a black British-Caribbean cultural tradition which “acknowledges, respects and reveres great Caribbean writers and musicians, while also celebrating the unique culture born from being a black African-Caribbean woman and all that brings with it.”
Musical activism is important to her and choosing songs which have strong messages which distinguish them from being mere entertainment. “I’m not against entertainment but my interests lie elsewhere. We need to think and act to create change,” she says.
It’s in this spirit that her upcoming concert at Kings Place in London on June 14 is dedicated to the late US singer Jeanne Lee. “She used her voice for activism,” Mitchener declares, “and by doing this she eschewed and defied categorisation, treating her voice instrumentally. Nothing was superfluous with her, every vocal sound and gesture mattered and was totally committed.”
She remembers as a teenager being given a cassette of her record The Newest Sound Around, with pianist Ran Blake: “I didn’t know what to make of it at first. Their dissonant, experimental approach to interpreting jazz standards unnerved me and I wasn’t sure I liked her voice or what they were doing. I had to wait until my musicality and sensibilities matured.”
At Kings Place, Mitchener will be playing with some marvellous musicians — cellist Anton Lukoszevieze and saxophonist Jason Yarde as well as Hawkins, Charles and drummer Mark Sanders at the concert.
“I am honoured and extremely proud to be working with such titans,” she says. “Their enthusiasm and energy is incredible. And if someone feels encouraged and more positive as a result of hearing us, then that is all we can ever hope for.”
The Jeanne Lee Project: Elaine Mitchener and Friends is at Kings Place on June 14, box office: kingsplace.co.uk.
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