After a Decade, 21-Year-Old Elena Pinderhughes Starts at the Beginning

Elena Pinderhughes.

Elena Pinderhughes. (Photo by Julie Vastola)

When you’ve played some of the finest concert halls in America, shared the stage with some of the finest players in your art form, and earned a byline on another artist’s album title all before turning 21 — what’s next?

For Elena Pinderhughes, the answer is to start at the beginning, and to synthesize those lessons into a singular, individual sound.

Now 21, the flutist and vocalist has spent half her life learning from a host of musical “aunties and uncles,” as well as playing alongside Herbie Hancock, Joshua Redman and Carlos Santana. Her work on trumpeter Christian Scott’s acclaimed album Stretch Music was considered worthy of special recognition in the title (“Introducing Elena Pinderhughes” follows in parentheses). She’s also recently recorded with rapper Common and pianist Robert Glasper, contributing to his work on the soundtrack to the Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead.

Elena Pinderhughes.
Elena Pinderhughes. (Julie Vastola)

Pinderhughes occupies a curious musical predicament — ten years deep as a working musician, yet only starting her recording career as a bandleader. Instead of feeling pressure to deliver an album as soon as possible, she chooses to remain patient, crafting her sound as it slowly reveals itself.

“One of my really close mentors told me not to be in a rush, and I think that was a really key thing for me to hear,” Pinderhughes admits by phone. “Oftentimes, we’re in a rush because we think the best time is now. In this industry, and especially as a female sometimes, there’s a draw to go early. But I haven’t had that pressure of feeling like I’m too late.”

Though the work that will comprise her debut is still largely in its formative stages, audiences at the 59th annual Monterey Jazz Festival will hear a handful of these new compositions when Pinderhughes performs Sunday, Sept. 18, on the festival’s Garden Stage. While she notes Monterey is a “festival that’s heard me play a lot of flute in the past,” this is the first time she’ll lead her own band there. (She also appears on the Arena Stage with Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project on Sept. 17.)

Pinderhughes, the child of academics, grew up in Berkeley. Like her older brother, pianist Samora Pinderhughes, she discovered a passion for music at a very young age — she remembers being immediately drawn to the flute at a concert when she was four, sharing that “I think [the instrument] really did choose me.”

Her parents quickly plugged the two into the Bay Area’s music community, and people like John Santos and Howard Wiley began taking an active interest in refining their daughters’ talent. Elena remembers being picked up from school by mentors and shuttled to shows, where she would sit in to learn the ropes not in a classroom but actively on the bandstand. She also learned alongside musicians her age as part of ensembles and music programs like the Grammy Band, the San Francisco Youth Symphony Orchestra and Young Musicians Choral Orchestra. The latter helped instill in her a persistent yet patient work ethic, she says, that she’s carried ever since.

Trumpeter Christian Scott, with whom she’s toured extensively, has proven particularly helpful in pushing Pinderhughes musically. Soon after securing a space in Scott’s ensemble, she discovered a new degree of musical intensity. “Christian steadily taught me to play with a different kind of fire than I had before,” she shares. “I didn’t really know that I possessed that kind of fire with the flute.”

But now, as Pinderhughes enters her final year at the Manhattan School of Music, her focus has returned to making her own musical statement. She’s been signed to SRP Music Group (the same outfit responsible for grooming Rihanna) for a little over a year, and has been consistently writing and recording material. She accepts that half of what she’s created so far will likely never see the light of day, but acknowledges that’s simply a part of the creative process.

“There’s no way to figure out what your sound is unless you try on different things. It’s been really cool to be able do that in an environment that’s just for me to work on those things,” she says. “My career’s just beginning. I feel like I have so much I want to say, and half of it, I don’t know how to say yet.”

Her vocals are entering the mix more and more, a piece of her musical puzzle she’s excited to share with the Monterey crowd. She’s also finding space to integrate dance, a discipline she practiced through high school, into her performances.

She’s reluctant to reveal much about specifics around her new project, but she does share a trio of names — James Blake, Frank Ocean, Drake — that have served as inspirations. They’re not a literal indicator of a change in sound, but rather a reflection of the modern tinge she aims to bring to her debut, even integrating electronic 808 kickdrums to her set.

Thanks to her partnership with SRP, she’s in no rush to finalize exactly what encompasses her “sound.” At this point, though, her closest confidantes have offered some pretty specific praise.

“This might sound weird, but everybody that I’ve played it for — the closest people to me — they’ve said it sounds like me,” she says.

“I can’t wait for people to hear it and see where I’m going,” she adds. “They’ve got a taste of what I do with other people, but I think when they hear my sound, it’s gonna be different. They’ll get to know me a lot better.”

After a Decade, 21-Year-Old Elena Pinderhughes Starts at the Beginning 14 September,2016Brandon Roos

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