“What can’t the human voice do?” This is what I wonder while listening to Elaine Mitchener embody her vocal instrument on this live recording captured at Cafe OTO in 2019. She performs alongside the joining of two esteemed duos: Pat Thomas (piano, electronics) and Orphy Robinson (marimba, electronics) collaborate as the duo Black Top; and the other is the canonical pairing of William Parker (double bass, guimbri) and Hamid Drake (percussion). This one hundred and six minute journey, divided between two tracks of some fifty minutes apiece, is titled Some Good News (Otoroku, 2021) – and it ain’t lyin’.
If you’re new to Black Top (as I was), you may well enjoy their prior recordings with Steve Williamson (2014) and Evan Parker (2015). They also have an excellent 2018 album with William Parker and Hamid Drake, and they doubled down on that established synergy when they invited experimental vocalist Elaine Mitchener – who sends the ensemble digging, spinning, boiling, flowering.
From quiet duos to full-ensemble exclamations, these artists explore a morphing spectrum of sounds and styles, while always feeling whole and unified. There are deep grooves that plumb your soul. There are rollicking blues that make you want to dance and praise. There are electronic dub effects that can mine granite in one moment and blast away from earth’s gravity in the next. And there is the warm communing of drum and chant and guimbri that feeds your spirit.
And within many of these deeply engaging moments is a voice. Mitchener summons her voice’s seemingly limitless capacity to excite and inspire, to confuse and bewilder, to mystify and transfix. Her 3-octave range has operatic training, and the listener is treated to brief currents of lovely singing, but the primary elements of her style comprise experimental sounds that are intensely rhythmic and visceral. Her voice gales gleefully, and gasps; it flutters through long threads of alliterative syllable repetition, and groans primal emotions; and it whirls with aspirated invention. In an article in The Guardian, she notes, “I’m drawing on what I hear around me,” she says. “Watch young children – they’re making the weirdest sounds. It’s only as teenagers we’re told to stop. My ears are always on – it’s this library of information.” Hers is a presence and a performance that rivets the listener’s attention, even amidst equally inspired performances on this album. Mitchener’s solo and collaborative work is also deeply invested in multiple artistic mediums across classical and the avant garde, and deals with the violent realities of discrimination and prejudice.
This video clip appears to be a low-tech audience recording from their performance at Cafe OTO, but it captures well the group’s dynamism: William Parker, Hamid Drake, Black Top and Elaine Mitchener (Quintet) at Cafe Oto (28 July 2019)
Some Good News is available on 2 CDs or digital download.