The Spotlight Shines on Elena Pinderhughes

The talented vocalist and flutist from Berkeley is having a breakout year with some of the biggest stars in jazz.


Pinderhughes is only 20, but has the credits of a pro.

Photo by Julie Vastola

Elena Pinderhughes is having a breakout year, which is both not surprising and astounding, given how much she’s already accomplished at the age of 20.

The Berkeley-raised flutist and vocalist has been a standout player since she was a tween and started gigging with her older brother, the equally precocious pianist/composer Samora Pinderhughes. By the time she turned 13, Pinderhughes had played Yoshi’s, the White House, and Carnegie Hall.

These days she’s living in Harlem, studying jazz and voice as a junior at the Manhattan School of Music, and performing regularly with some of jazz’s biggest stars, including vibraphonist Stefon Harris and piano great Kenny Barron.

“The scheduling worked out well,” she said in a recent phone conversation. “I’ve had to miss certain things, but I’ve been able to keep up in school and do a lot of performing. Moving to New York I’ve been part of a lot of different projects. I’m playing all the time and recording all kinds of things, like Robert Glasper’s score for the new film on Miles Davis. And I still perform with Samora a lot.”

Pinderhughes is the first person to tell you that she is very much a work in progress as an artist. She’s writing music and experimenting with different instrumental configurations as a bandleader, honing her approach on an instrument with a relatively small footprint in jazz. What makes 2015 the year of Elena Pinderhughes isn’t so much the music she’s making under her own name. It’s that everybody else has been pushing her into the spotlight.

She’s featured on the second edition of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s Grammy Award-winning Mosaic Project: Love and Soul (Concord Jazz). A few weeks ago she performed at Grace Cathedral as part of SFJAZZ’s concert marking the 50th anniversary of Duke Ellington’s Concert of Sacred Music. And in her biggest career boost yet, she returns to the East Bay for a two-night run at Yoshi’s on Oct. 15-16 with New Orleans trumpet star Christian Scott, whose new album on the Ropeadope label is titled Christian Scott Stretch Music (Introducing Elena Pinderhughes).

It’s fine for Scott to take the credit for introducing Pinderhughes, but Bay Area music fans really need no introduction. She literally grew up on local stages, from La Peña and Berkeley High, where she spent four years in the award-winning jazz band, to the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars and the Cheese Board, where she held down a Wednesday gig throughout high school that taught her “how to be a bandleader, how to play for hours at a time, and get a set list together.”

Pinderhughes joined Scott’s ensemble about a year ago, and since then he’s shaped it around her vocals and flute work. The seven-piece band delivers a dense sonic mix, drawing on a century of celebratory Crescent City grooves from the second line to bounce. For Pinderhughes, who’s deeply grounded in Afro-Caribbean musical currents, “It’s amazing to mix those traditional rhythms, Mardi Gras Indian music, with contemporary rhythms like bounce that a 20-year-old is used to hearing. The beautiful thing is they’re all related.”

Elena Pinderhughes appears with Christian Scott, 8 p.m. Oct. 15 and 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Oct. 16, $19-$40; Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland.

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