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Alexander Hawkins / Elaine Mitchener Quartet: UpRoot

John Sharpe By

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Adventurous pianist Alexander Hawkins seems intent on exploring as many different avenues of expression as is humanly possible, having already released solo set Song Singular, (Babel, 2013), duo set Leaps In Leicester, (Clean Feed, 2016), trio set Alexander Hawkins Trio, (AHM, 2015), and ensemble set Unit[e], (AHM, 2017), as well as documents of rewarding encounters with outfits as diverse as Rob Mazurek's Chicago Underground and Turkey's Konstrukt. Uproot represents a new venture for him as he teams up with vocalist Elaine Mitchener, as well as familiar collaborators bassist Neil Charles and drummer Steve Davis.

But this album is a long way from the traditional piano trio with vocals. Indeed it is not until part way through the third track that the typical formulation appears. Mitchener builds on the Jeanne Lee, Maggie Nicols and Norma Winstone models for incorporating voice into an improvising setting. She switches between variously making wordless noises which express the full range of human emotion and then some, and speaking, singing and scatting. Her fluidity is matched by her colleagues. Both Charles and Davis move easily between the composed and the improvised episodes blurring the boundaries, while Hawkins subtly steers and shapes from behind the keyboard.

Together they form a totally integrated unit which achieves a satisfying balance between vocals and instrumental. They share an empathetic sense of dynamics, apparent from the start, but most obvious in how they navigate as a crew the sudden swells, lacunas and spiky pointillism of "The Miracle / You." While "If You Say So" is the only all-out improv, there are uncharted elements in all the other cuts, which include Hawkins's originals as well as a variety of intriguing covers by 1960s New Thing icons like Patty Waters, Jeanne Lee and Archie Shepp.

Testament to the group ethos, Hawkins doesn't solo until the title number, where he spins out a tripping yarn over left-hand figures evoking South African kwela rhythms, before an unaccompanied, rippling close. "OM-SE / Environment Music" forms the highlight encompassing among other things a duet for Davis's tappy rumble and Mitchener's voice, a rhapsodic piano solo, an intermittent group refrain, throbbing pizzicato calisthenics from Charles, and Mitchener declaiming a prosaic list of items to declutter all in just over 13-minutes. It represents in microcosm the range of this alluring band.

Track Listing: Why Is Love Such a Funny Thing?; The Miracle / You; UpRoot; If You Say So; Blasé; OM-SE / Environment Music; Joy; Directives / Walk Nicely / I’ll Meet You There.

Personnel: Alexander Hawkins: piano; Elaine Mitchener: voice; Neil Charles: double bass; Stephen Davis: drums, percussion.

Title: UpRoot | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Intakt Records

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