Alexander Hawkins/Elaine Mitchener Quartet captivate at Kings Place

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The conventions of a jazz performance are so well established they are easily overlooked. Audiences applaud after solos because they catch the ear and usually mark a clear departure from a stated theme. However, at no point during two absorbing sets from this tightly cohesive ensemble are hands put together in the house when a single player is heard for any length of time. Improvs are not telegraphed.

The quartet jointly led by pianist Alexander Hawkins and vocalist Elaine Mitchener presents a suite of music in the true sense of the term, meaning that single pieces and moments within them, be it a solo, duo, impromptu exchange or burst of unison playing, form an overarching narrative. As with many an interesting group the large unit sub-divides into smaller cells without breaking the flow of ideas.

Launching Uproot, its debut album on Intakt, a label of optimum quality control, the quartet makes that sense of purpose clear from its arrival by again bucking a trend. Rather than take a few moments to settle and slowly count off the downbeat Hawkins, Mitchener, double bassist Neil Charles and drummer Stephen Davis attack their respective instruments as soon as they take to the stage, producing a notable jolt in the audience who are frankly caught off guard.

That could have been empty gesture politics if not edginess for edginess' sake but the creative richness of the performance, above all the tension between prepared and spontaneous materials, precludes that. Echoes of Hawkins' role models, AACM iconoclasts Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell [and occasionally Jaki Byard], come to the fore, as does Mitchener's immersion in theatre as well as in music. It is precisely the elision of performance art and sound exploration that makes the gig fascinating. Rhythmic turbulence, focussed harmonic distortion and dynamic interplay all bear down on Uproot but Hawkins and Mitchener also understand that the so-called avant-garde is nothing if not melodic and that beauty can occur when serenity dovetails ferocity.

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While Abrams worked brilliantly with the unheralded Ella Jackson, Hawkins has found an equally poised, often operatic partner in Mitchener whose finesse of tone lights up the room on wry originals such as 'Love Is A Funny Thing' and Archie Shepp's 'Blasé'.

Her wide range of experimentalism – polyrhythmic clickings; throaty overtones; meshings of song and spoken word – are met by some very potent responses, above all Davis' jagged thumb piano and Charles' swaying arco. On just a few occasions the group's attack is overwhelming, and some balance is lost as an idea is explored beyond its natural life cycle, an occupational hazard with any ex-tempo creativity and a defiantly no-compromise spirit.

However, the seamless shifts into tough if not torrid vamps, especially one string of languorous descending chords from Hawkins, imbue the gig with direct currents of energy that are irresistible. Mitchener both reinforces and subverts that strategy, using her voice as an abstract sound source as well as vehicle for storytelling that is by turns full of sharp irony, deep pathos and stark, confrontational resolve. Right down to the recitation of a list of things she no longer needs, on which there might be consensus – the numbers of people to whom she no longer wants to speak – and dissent – her old discs from a mini-disc player. Some might argue it is worth reactivating that time machine.

– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Monika S. Jakubowska

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