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Elaine Mitchener: Vocal Classics Of The Black Avant Garde playlist

April 2019

The black British singer selects tracks which place the voice at the heart of black avant garde expression

As a classically trained black singer working in experimental music I have long had a desire to perform music by black composers which presented daring and unusual and innovative and progressive uses of the voice. In 2017 I formed the Vocal Classics Of The Black Avant Garde (VCBAG) group in order to realise this desire. The group’s original line-up consisted of saxophonist Jason Yarde, who is also its musical director, trumpeter Byron Wallen, pianist Robert Mitchell, bassist Neil Charles, drummer Mark Sanders and poet Dante Micheaux. At the group’s first performance, at the London Contemporary Music Festival in December 2017, our repertoire was drawn from the 1960s and 70s black American avant garde: Eric Dolphy and Bob James’s “Jim Crow” (aka “A Personal Statement”), Archie Shepp’s “On This Night”, Jeanne Lee’s “The Maximum Capacity Of This Room” and “In These Last Days”, Joseph Jarman’s “Non-cognitive Aspects Of The City”, and Gene McDaniels’s “Compared To What”. For the group’s second concert, at London’s Cafe Oto in January 2019, Alexander Hawkins deputised for Robert Mitchell and the repertoire was extended to include works by pianist Mary Lou Williams and poet Jayne Cortez, as well as sections of Jason Yarde’s 2018 Windrush Suite with texts by Caribbean thinkers Stuart Hall, Louise Bennett and Sam Selvon.

In undertaking the VCBAG project, what we wanted to do as a group of predominantly black British players was not to present a pastiche of black American music, but to represent these works drawing on our own experiences and expertise. Adding Jason’s suite and those Caribbean texts to the set was significant as it further personalised the whole concept for us, as most of the group have family members who came to the UK from the Caribbean. But all the pieces we perform under the VCBAG banner remain significant, as the issues they confront, of systemic racism and oppression, are still all too prevalent, in the UK, the US and elsewhere, while their compositional forms remain rich sources for black avant garde expression.

None of the tracks in this playlist are performed by the VCBAG group, but all of them helped inspire it.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk

From The Case Of The 3 Sided Dream In Audio Color
(Atlantic) 1975

The Case Of The 3 Sided Dream In Audio Color contains a number of interludes titled “Dream” which are like short sound collages, interspersed with very original arrangements of pieces such as “Bye Bye Blackbird” and Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”. On this one the ‘rhythm track’ is a recording of a game of table tennis, and over that are laid various other recordings including one of Adelaide Hall growling her way through “Creole Love Call” from 1927, a very early black avant garde vocal classic. Like everything Roland Kirk did this track feels defiant – it’s defying you to categorise him as simply a jazz musician, to conveniently pigeonhole him in that way. For that reason it’s inspiring to any black musician trying to convince people that black music can also be experimental and avant garde.

Cab Calloway
“St James Infirmary”
(YouTube) circa 1940

This is not avant garde per se, but it is experimental; he’s experimenting with his voice, the timbre, the tone, colouring the words in a very unusual way, creating an atmosphere, in order to tell the story. I love the way his voice sounds so big and operatic, but there’s a real artistry to what he does with it here. As a singer you have to learn the notes, and the text, but you have to live it as well, you have to embody it, and commit to it, and convey it, and Cab Calloway does that brilliantly.

Max Roach & Abbey Lincoln
“Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace”
From We Insist! Freedom Now Suite
(Candid) 1960

What’s astounding about this track is the way the opening section doesn’t prepare you at all emotionally for what happens in the middle section. Her screams sound like they are coming from way back; this is a howl of centuries, not just of now, but a collective scream for the ages. In the final section you really feel her exhaustion, the mental fatigue, the weariness, but also her strength, and the sense that you have to rest in order to continue to fight. At the time it was recorded there weren’t any other black female vocalists expressing in this way. Bas Sheva was out there howling, but that was on exotica albums, it was pure titillation. This is something else. By all accounts this track ruined Abbey Lincoln’s career as a jazz singer, and she was a great jazz singer, she had a beautiful voice, in that jazz chanteuse tradition. But she wasn’t thinking about her career. She had other things on her mind.

Ben Patterson & William Pearson

“Duo For Voice And A String Instrument”

This is the sound of two avant garde black American artists performing in a gallery in Wuppertal in Germany in 1961. Ben Patterson and William Pearson had both moved to Europe in order to study and make music, because in the 1950s America was no place to be for black men who had ambitions to be classical musicians. Pearson would go on to sing works by Ligeti, Busotti and Kagel, as well as Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs For A Mad King, which Julius Eastman famously recorded. Patterson would become a significant figure in the Fluxus movement. Here they are performing one of Patterson’s early graphic scores. I’ve performed the piece myself, with cellist Anton Lukoszevieze. The score is so enigmatic, you have to work hard to interpret it. This is a fantastic performance, funny, full of drama, and very musical. Thank you to the person who had the presence of mind to record it otherwise today it would just be hearsay.

Andrew Hill
“A Tender Tale”
From Lift Every Voice
(Blue Note) 1969

The track combines a small vocal ensemble with a jazz quintet. But even when they are singing texts, the voices are treated more like a horn section than a choral section, they’re used instrumentally. What I like about it is the sense of thinking big, the daring of it: just throw these two very different kinds of music making together and see what happens. The voices sound similar to Les Double Six or The Swingle Singers, but they’re not as tight as those groups, and that’s what makes it more interesting, that’s what makes it sound heavier, more gritty. You can hear there’s a real commitment to trying to get it right – who knows how many rehearsals they had trying to master those difficult melodic lines and harmonies, but probably not enough. So even though it’s a bit ragged in places that just adds to the strength of the concept. I’d love to sing in a choir like this!

Spontaneous Music Ensemble featuring Maggie Nicols
“Oliv II”
From Oliv & Familie
(Emanem) 1969

Maggie Nicols is one quarter North African Berber on her mother’s side, and this quartet line-up of Spontaneous Music Ensemble also included the South African bassist Johnny Dyani, so I feel justified in claiming this one for the black avant garde! People tend not to associate improv vocalising with being pared back, with being sparse and spatial, but this is a great lesson in that, and also in unison vocalisation, in the way Maggie is doubling with the other instruments. I love the way she coaxes sound out. There’s almost a spider web quality to this track – you’re drawn in to this silver web of sound as the improvisation unfolds, and everyone is listening so intently, it’s incredibly intimate, it’s real chamber music. It reminds me of “Jim Crow”, the Eric Dolphy/Bob James piece we perform in VCBAG, which also has unisons, which is also a chamber piece, and which also brings this contemporary new music approach to experimental jazz.

Linda & Sonny Sharrock

“Portrait Of Linda In Three Colours: All Black”
From Black Woman
(Vortex) 1970

When I first heard this track I was left speechless. It’s exhausting. Linda Sharrock isn’t using words, it’s not about technique, it’s about raw emotion. It’s so in the moment. I love the level of intensity. It’s so angry, and even though there are no words, it speaks viscerally of the condition of black American people, the injustices they had suffered and were suffering. In 1970 there was a lot for black people to scream about. And the situation hasn’t changed much.

Archie Shepp
“Quiet Dawn”
From Attica Blues
(Impulse!) 1972

This track, which I first heard more than 20 years ago, is sung by Waheeda Massey, the young daughter of the composer of the song, Cal Massey. Attica Blues is such a heavy, politically charged album, and to have a child sing the last track on it was a revolutionary act in itself, because it seemed to be saying: this child is the future, as an adult she will be the black revolutionary voice of the future. And there’s no hint of musical compromise going on or concessions made for this child. Clearly Waheeda Massey was musical enough to learn the vocal line, which isn’t an easy line to sing. Maybe she didn’t understand what she was singing, but she gives the text meaning and expression and shows real musical maturity. But because it’s a child’s voice there’s an innocence to it too. I find it a very positive and encouraging piece of music.

Sun Ra featuring June Tyson
“Astro Black”
From Astro Black
(Impulse!) 1973

I love the way this has been recorded, how present the voice is, there’s no treatment on it at all, you’re just hearing the raw voice, and it sounds so honest and direct. I also love the combination of the synth, those very futuristic-sounding textures, with the trombones, those long low ostinatos, like a ground bass, driving through the track. It reminds me of Xenakis’s Oresteïa in the way it sounds both very ancient but also very far ahead into the future, which is what Sun Ra was all about of course. The music makes you feel as if you are in all these different dimensions simultaneously, and June Tyson’s voice is the thing that is steering you through, guiding you through these multiple realms, this astro blackness. Her presence is very reassuring.

Art Ensemble Of Chicago

From Fanfare For The Warriors
(Atlantic) 1974

I hear this piece as a multiplicity of voices. There is only one actual voice, Joseph Jarman’s, but all the other instruments feel like voices too. The horn and percussion instruments, the whistles and squeakers, all have their own voices, and each player is vocalising through their use of these instruments. The whole performance is a wonderful union of word and sound painting and sound poetry.

Carlos Garnett featuring Dee Dee Bridgewater
“Banks Of The Nile”
From Black Love
(Muse) 1974

In his oratorios and cantatas, Bach never left singers anywhere to breathe, and that’s because he treated the voice as another instrument, which is why it’s so wonderful to sing Bach, and for me this is like that. It’s a torrent of sound, and Dee Dee Bridgewater’s voice is just another instrument in the flow, going along with it, somehow getting the words out, while also being swept along with the music, being swept along the banks of the Nile! It’s so full on, so over the top, it’s just fearless, a real celebration of black love. I can’t sing as high as she can but I love miming along to this track! It’s unapologetic, exuberant, joyful, and proud.

Muhal Richard Abrams & Ella Jackson
“How Are You?”
From Things To Come From Those Now Gone
(Delmark) 1975

This piece is like modern day lieder. The sound world is familiar to me, not as a jazz piece, but more from classical music, with the harmonies that are being used. Ella Jackson sounds like she’s a mezzo soprano, but she’s singing right at the top of her range, and it’s painful to listen to, because she’s slightly out of tune, she doesn’t quite hit the notes, but its also beautiful, so maybe that was the reason for the piece, maybe Muhal Richard Abrams wanted it like that. It’s always a struggle as a singer, to master your instrument, to find different colours, and this does pull unbelievable colours from her voice, that she wouldn’t get if she was singing within her normal range. I would love to know more about the concept and process behind it. I really want to sing it.

Milford Graves with Hugh Glover
From Various: New American Music Vol 1
(Smithsonian Folkways) 1975

Here are two black men vocalising in a way that black men were not known for doing in the mid-1970s. It’s not R&B, it’s not soul, but it’s incredibly soulful. It’s provocative, but it’s not ugly, it’s beautiful, and it’s funny as well. I love hearing male voices taken to these extremes. I’m lucky enough to have worked with Phil Minton. I’m used to hearing Phil do this; I’m not used to hearing black men use their voices in this way. What I love about it is the commitment to the sound, the commitment to what they are doing. It’s a language I understand, a heritage I feel part of.

Jeanne Lee
“Yeh Come T’be”
From Conspiracy
(Earthforms) 1975

Here is just one aspect of the work of the great Jeanne Lee. It’s a piece for multitracked solo voice. There’s not much actual text, and she’s not using any extended vocal techniques, apart from the line where she is making a whooping sound like a bird call, so it’s very minimalist. It’s like a strange lullaby; its very present, very beautiful. It’s hard to sing against your own voice, you’re totally exposed, you have nothing to rely on. It’s hard to stay in tune, so there’s a vulnerability there, but in that vulnerability there’s a sense of immediacy and honesty and openness; there is no trickery going on, and for me that is the ultimate, the purest form of singing.

Julius Eastman

“Prelude To The Holy Presence Of Joan D'Arc”
From Unjust Malaise
(New World) 1981

It’s hard to sing solo voice pieces, it’s physically difficult, and here is a piece for solo voice that is more than 11 minutes long! The text refers to the saints that Joan of Arc said spoke to her in a vision, telling her, this teenage girl, to go and fight the good fight. It’s a mesmeric performance, you are hypnotised. It’s not an easy piece to perform. It requires immense amounts of concentration, on the part of the singer, and the listener. But as a listener it is worth giving yourself up to it, and entering into this visionary state of being. In terms of the text, the whole idea of speaking boldly ties in with Julius Eastman’s own philosophy. His whole thing was about being gay to the fullest, being black to the fullest, being a musician to the fullest. This piece and performance typify that attitude.

Cecil Taylor Segments II (Orchestra Of Two Continents)
From Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants)
(Soul Note) 1985

I know from experience that it’s not easy to persuade virtuoso instrumentalists to put down their instruments and use their voices – to freely vocalise! Which is one reason I love this piece. What’s ingenious about it, what keeps it fresh and exciting, is the way the duration of each vocal section lasts just 30 seconds or so, so the piece is constantly shifting. For each section, cellular musical ideas are introduced (theme) which are then expanded on by the ensemble (variation). The way Cecil Taylor organises the ensemble’s voices here generates energies and colours that wouldn’t have been achievable if they’d been playing their usual instruments – just compare the vocal passages to the instrumental section that closes the piece.

Matana Roberts
“Pov Piti”
“Libation For Mr Brown: Bid Em In...”
From Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens De Couleur Libres
(Constellation) 2011

My project Sweet Tooth confronts the ongoing legacy of slavery using a mix of movement, improvisation, historical texts and personal history. Matana Roberts’s Coin Coin project approaches the same subject from the perspective of a black American woman. Matana is best known as an artist, composer and saxophonist, but her singing voice is very present throughout the Coin Coin records, and she uses it to great effect, as these two very different tracks show. The first is a harrowing howl of rage; the second develops from an auction block chant into a joyous collective group performance.

Elaine Mitchener and members of the VCBAG group present The Jeanne Lee Project at London’s Kings Place on 14 June; the full VCBAG group performs at Mulhouse’s Météo Jazz Festival between 27-31 August. Subscribers can read Biba Kopf’s review of VCBAG’s performance at London’s Cafe Oto in issue 422.

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