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English saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael steps out on her own

Tenor saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael emerges as another important name on London's modern jazz scene.
Adama Jalloh
Tenor saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael emerges as another important name on London's modern jazz scene.

Tenor saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael's debut album, The River Doesn't Like Strangers, introduces another name in a growing list of hot modern jazz players on the scene in London, England. Majestic and spiritual, playful and powerful, Carmichael is carving out a special place in jazz that's all her own.

The album's title references her father's memories of the Rio Grande river in his Jamaican hometown, and the album echoes a river's playful and unpredictable flow. Carmichael drew inspiration from "the lineage of Black music-making and the Caribbean diasporas. It only felt right to reference my own lineage and what has always been inside me, even before a saxophone was put in my hands," she says.

Carmichael came up in London with the Mercury Prize-nominated SEED Ensemble, also playing with tuba master Theon Cross and her own Chelsea Carmichael Ensemble. She met London sax star Shabaka Hutchings at a concert in 2019, and he proposed her debut as the first release for his new Native Rebel Recordings label.

"The writing of this record," Carmichael explains, "is in collaboration with Shabaka, so that's one facet of what I want to say musically, and there's more to come. The overarching influence is Black excellence. That's what does it for me."

Her band on The River Doesn't Like Strangers includes guitarist David Okumu and bassist Tom Herbert of the trio The Invisible, plus percussionist Eddie Hick of Hutchings' popular band Sons of Kemet. The music definitely echoes that band's rhythmic musical canvas of energetic, tribal tempos. There are more meditative soundscapes as well, highlighting Carmichael's lush tenor saxophone sound and knack for melody.

Fans of John Coltrane's spiritual music will find much to enjoy here. Carmichael notes the influence: "The thing that you hear in his playing ... he's always reaching for something beyond himself." She also notes Dexter Gordon, Lester Young and other jazz legends as inspirations, but Chelsea Carmichael is creating a music that's reaching for the future.

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Abe grew up in Western Washington, a 3rd generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.