Immersed In The Flow: Chelsea Carmichael On London Jazz, Coltrane And Misogynoir

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London is the talk of the jazz world right now and rightly so; beginning a few years ago as an underground phenomenon in performance spaces like Total Refreshment Centre, the capital’s jazz scene quickly gained momentum and notoriety, leading to the breakout success of bands like Sons Of Kemet and SEED Ensemble as well as the high-flying saxophonist Nubya Garcia, who’s just wowed an audience at The Proms. All three acts are Mercury Prize nominees; a fact which helped to put them indelibly on the radar of non-jazz listeners and catapult them into the consciousness of a wider, mainstream audience.

A bubbling cauldron of creativity and innovation, the London jazz scene has undoubtedly thrown up some extraordinary talents in the last few years and the good news is there are more to come. If there’s any justice in the world, then another shining new saxophone star, 28-year-old Chelsea Carmichael, will breakthrough in style this year. A tenor player whose distinctive sound blends the warm but muscular timbre of Dexter Gordon with the questing spiritual vibe of John Coltrane, Chelsea is the first signing to noted UK reedman Shabaka Hutchings’ indie label, Native Rebel Recordings, which will release her debut album, ‘The River Doesn’t Like Strangers,’ on October 22nd.     

Though she now lives in London, Chelsea is a proud Northerner; born in Manchester, she was raised in Warrington, Cheshire, where her love of music began as a child. Her father’s passion for music rubbed off on her early on. “My dad has always been a huge lover of music and has an extensive record collection,” she reveals. “He’s a big fan of Michael Jackson, Prince, Earth, Wind & Fire and Sly & The Family Stone. Driving in the car with him, we’d  always put albums on and listen to them.”

But Chelsea wanted to do more than listen to music; she wanted to learn to play an instrument and create her own sounds. But it wasn’t the saxophone that initially took her fancy. “I started the piano at ten and wanted to be a classical concert pianist,” she says. “The plan was to go to ‘Chets’ (short for Chetham’s, a specialist music school in Manchester) and do the classical piano thing but at the time you had to play a secondary instrument to get in and I didn’t play anything else.”

But help came in the form of a friend of her father’s, who gave her an alto saxophone. It changed twelve-year-old Chelsea’s life. “When I picked it up again, I realized that I had a talent for it and the classical pianist dream went out the window,” she laughs. “I really engaged with it and progressed really quickly. It took over as my first instrument and became the thing that I wanted to do most.”

Dean Masser

Smitten by her new horn, Chelsea took private lessons with Dean Masser, a Wigan-based professional player. “He took me from a beginner right through to before I went off to college,” she explains and says she had to choose between studying classical or jazz saxophone. It didn’t take long for her to make a decision. “Dean was just such an incredible jazz player and it was his sound and the way that he improvised that really drew me into doing jazz,” she says. 

Via her teacher, she discovered saxophone-playing jazz legends like Dexter Gordon, Lester Young, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, Eddie Harris and Charlie Parker, who all exerted a profound influence on her own musical sensibility and helped to shape her emerging style.

In 2012, Chelsea moved down to London, ostensibly to study music at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance though she soon became immersed in the capital’s jazz scene which was just beginning to bubble up. When she wasn’t studying, she was playing gigs and honing her chops on stage. She toured the UK with both Britain’s own Courtney Pine and the American trumpeter Terence Blanchard and then branched out into education, leading the NYJO (National Youth Jazz Orchestra) Messengers for three years; a sextet that she took into schools to encourage children to pick up an instrument and participate in music-making.

SEED Ensemble (Chelsea second from right)

Although she describes that phase of her life and helping young people as a “humbling experience,” she desired above all else to make her mark as a professional musician and joined the ranks of SEED Ensemble, a ten-piece group led by saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi, which included trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey and guitarist Shirley Tetteh. The group’s critically acclaimed debut album ‘Driftglass’ was nominated for the prestigious Mercury prize in 2019. “The record that we made was something that I was really proud of,” admits Chelsea.  “It was a really great experience to be in that band and the right thing for me at the time for sure.”

The same year, she joined forces with Shabaka Hutchings, the pioneering multi-instrumentalist behind the three trailblazing bands Sons Of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming and  Shabaka & The Ancestors, and who was instrumental in igniting London’s new wave of jazz in the 2010s. “We properly met when we played together on a gig at the Church Of Sound with a South African band called The Brother Moves On,” reveals Chelsea. “After that, he just called me up and said, ‘I’m starting a label, would you like to do an album?’ I said, ‘yeah,’ so it was as simple as that.”

Based at London’s famous RAK Studios, Chelsea’s label, Native Rebel Recordings, boasts a unique but simple modus operandi, which according to the blurb on its website aims to “gather the musicians together to record the album in three days at RAK, without pre-rehearsal, and to consider the rehearsals part of the recording.”

Chelsea admits that the process outlined by the label was a daunting prospect at first. “I was pretty nervous running up to it,” she confesses, though when she got into the studio, her fears quickly evaporated. “There was something quite refreshing about it because I realised that the only thing I could do was bring myself. Having nothing to prepare and no material to practice made it a liberating experience.”

Eddie Hick

Her studio collaborators were guitarist extraordinaire, David Okumu, and bassist Tom Herbert,  both members of the Mercury-nominated trio, The Invisible – and on drums was Sons Of Kemet rhythm maestro, Eddie Hick. “Usually I find studio sessions really stressful,” confesses Chelsea, “but once we started it just felt like a super-organic experience and probably one of the easiest recording sessions I’ve ever done, which is really crazy for a first album. Often, I find being in the studio for long periods mentally and physically draining but this was easy – it came together quite organically and really naturally because I think the right factors were in place.”

David Okumu

She’d worked with Herbert and Hick previously but not with David Okumu. “David and I only met for the first time at the studio so we’d never played together before but I admired what he’d done with The Invisible,” she says. “To have a sense of familiarity with Tom and Eddie and then a sense of the unknown with someone else like David really worked. Everyone was just really open to the creative process that we were trying to do so there wasn’t any sort of tension musically. I’ve been in plenty of situations where even though it’s improvised music, there’s been tension with other people – just differences in musicality, playing and preferred improvisation styles. But with this process, none of that was there at all.”

Overseeing the sessions like an omniscient god was label boss, producer Shabaka Hutchings, who helped to facilitate the creative flow. Says Chelsea: “He brought some compositional ideas, melodies and tunes to work with and then sat in the room while we recorded. His job was really bringing new vibes every day and also being an ear outside of the music; to be an impartial member of the process and listening for what he felt worked and didn’t work.”

Shabaka Hutchings

The three-day session yielded ten songs, ranging from energetic, rhythm-driven juggernauts to quietly dreamy soundscapes. Highlights include ‘Myriad,’ where Chelsea’s husky tenor saxophone dances over a hyper-percussive Afrobeat groove and ‘Bone And Soil,’  a mellow number defined by David Okumu’s lush, synth-like guitar chords which wrap around Chelsea’s infectious melodic lines. Chelsea discloses that the title song and another tune on the album, ‘Noor,’ were both inspired by two of her favourite poems. “They come from the (Africa-American) poet Nayyirah Waheed,” she says. “I’ve got a collection of her poems called Salt. I’d read poetry before, but it was when I picked up that book that I really started to get into it. Her poems ‘Noor’ and ‘Bone And Soil’ really resonated with me.”

Cut from a different cloth is the album’s opening track, ‘There Is A Place (It’s Not Here),’ a dramatic, slow-moving overture drenched in cavernous reverb which is built on a sustained chordal wave from Okumu’s effects-soaked guitar. It functions as a platform for Chelsea to embark on a more meditative approach to jazz; the music’s building intensity and sense of exploration have echoes of John Coltrane’s spiritual jazz style. It’s a comparison that Chelsea acknowledges. “I definitely think a lot of the ethos behind that music has had a huge impact on me, and especially the thing that you hear in his playing like he’s always reaching for something beyond himself,” says the saxophonist. “Sometimes you have these moments when you’re playing and everything is right and you realize that what you’re doing is sometimes beyond yourself and the room that you’re in. I think that’s something that I’ve really taken from Coltrane’s music.”

Though it’s Coltrane’s vibe rather than sound that has influenced Chelsea, one of the highlights of her career so far was a sold-out concert she did at the Jazz Cafe in January 2020 when she led a band that celebrated the 60th anniversary of Coltrane’s classic 1960 album, ‘Giant Steps.’ She and her cohorts performed the album in its entirety live. “I’ve really done some incredible gigs all over the world but for some reason that one was really special for me,” she says. “I’d been working on the arrangements for ages running up to it because I wanted to do the album. But I didn’t want to do it exactly how it is, I wanted to interpret it. At the same time, I didn’t want to do too much with it because it’s such a seminal work. I didn’t want to take a song like ‘A Moment’s Notice’ and put a backbeat to it or do anything ridiculous.”

Buoyed by the ecstatic audience response to ‘Giant Steps’ and the joy of working with that particular band, Chelsea says she’s keen to repeat the experience. “I’d really like to do it again somewhere at another venue,” she says. 

Along with Nubya Garcia, Cassie Kinoshie, Shirley Tetteh and Sheila Maurice-Grey, Chelsea is one of several, super-talented young black British women making their names as instrumentalists within the London jazz scene right now. The fact that the press often uses the word “female” when describing them as musicians suggests that even in these supposedly enlightened times, there’s still a novelty value attached to women in jazz who aren’t singers. For Chelsea and her sisters in jazz, that can be frustrating but she sees both the benefits and drawbacks of being perceived as a female saxophonist rather than a saxophonist where gender isn’t a factor. “I think about it a lot in terms of where I stand with it,” she muses. “I don’t think I’ve quite got to an end goal with that and perhaps I never will because the landscape is always changing. But I think it’s such a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, you’ve got people that think that me being a woman means that I have more to prove and then there’s the other side of things where because I’m a woman playing the saxophone, people think that’s really cool and hip and find that really interesting.”

Chelsea playing with Theon Cross

For the other musicians who are part of London’s very diverse jazz scene, her being female is never an issue: they accept her for who she is as a musician and what she brings to the table in terms of her creativity. “Those things don’t matter when I’m playing with (tuba player) Theon (Cross) or (pianist) Joe Harmon Jones or even when I was making the album with Shabaka,” she reveals. “So  I’m surrounding myself with people where I don’t really need to think about those things very much.”

Chelsea with Nubya Garcia (far right)

What is frustrating for Chelsea is the stereotyping she and her fellow black female musicians often receive. “It’s a fact that we often just get grouped together or even confused for each other all the time,” she reveals. “I’ve been called Nubya or Sheila or Shirley or Cassie so many times and we look completely different!”  Chelsea laughs philosophically about being mistaken for someone else just because of the colour of her skin but she’s making a serious point.  “I think that perception is based on misogynoir and some people thinking that black women are all the same,” she says, “so we just get grouped together in that way.”

At the same time that Chelsea has experienced misogynoir, a unique form of discrimination faced by black women, she’s also acutely aware that interest in her and musicians like Nubya Garcia and Cassie Kinoshie has grown to some extent because being black and female is in vogue right now; a situation partly brought about by how the Black Lives Matters movement has raised awareness of the under-representation of minorities in all areas of life and influenced the media to help redress that imbalance. “Being a black woman in jazz at the moment means I’m a fashionable thing to a lot of places and to a lot of people but it’s almost a commodification of being black and being a woman in music,” she says.

She’s right to be wary because she realises how fickle the interest in her could be; after all, what comes into fashion will one day go out of fashion too.  “It’s very cool to be hip and brands like to see that and put that on the front of their magazines,” she says, “but I’m very aware of that and not resting on it. I just want to be excellent and continue to always be excellent. Whether my image comes in and out of fashion doesn’t matter, because my music and my talent will always be the thing.”

The London jazz scene is also the flavour of the moment right now, something that could quickly change given the fickleness of the media’s interest and how they manipulate the music-buying public. The last time British jazz was fashionable and in the spotlight was back in the late ’80s when Courtney Pine and Steve Williamson were leading the UK’s jazz charge but the media soon lost interest, focusing their attention elsewhere. Chelsea knows that can happen again.

“The scene is so inspiring and the music that’s coming out is great but part of me is wondering what’s next,” she says. “I’m definitely having internal conversations about whether what is happening now is just a hype around London and wondering how long we can sustain this.”

She’s hoping that the quality of the music will keep the scene fresh and keep it alive long after the media’s short-attention-span has moved elsewhere. “The thing that’s most inspiring to me is black excellence and building on it,” she declares. “I’m just making sure that we’re the best that we can be at all times. And I think that’s where the longevity is.”

Chelsea is excited at the prospect of performing her new album live, but given the challenging times we live in, it might not be straightforward.  “We’re hoping to do a London show before Christmas as an album launch,” she reveals and also hopes, Covid travel restrictions notwithstanding, that she’ll be able to venture further afield than London. “In terms of touring the rest of the country and the EU, we’re looking at the start of next year for that but it’s just so unpredictable because obviously, we don’t know what’s going to happen in winter.”

One thing that’s not in doubt is that Chelsea Carmichael has produced a stunning debut album in ‘The River Doesn’t Like Strangers.’ Brimming with invention and originality, it offers compelling proof that young black British musicians are playing an important role in pushing jazz forward as the 21st century unfolds.

Chelsea Carmichael’s ‘The River Doesn’t Like Strangers’ is released by Native Rebel Recordings on October 22nd.

(Chelsea Carmichael photo credits: Adam Jalloh)