One of the brightest stories in British jazz over the last decade has been the rise of pianist Robert Mitchell, who has taken a slightly different direction than most UK jazz artists. While many of his contemporaries have set themselves squarely in the free jazz of European/Bitches Brew era, Mitchell has amazingly melded the structural standards of classical with the emotional elements of '70s soul-jazz and modern jazz themes into a beautiful and creative new model for the new century.
Mitchell has performed and recorded with a wide array of artists of the last decade, including Courtney Pine, Soweto Kinch, Norma Winstone and most recently Matana Roberts. He has developed into a multi-faceted artist with a soul-jazz ensemble Panacea, a trio (3io), his solo work, as well as, commissioned classical compositions.
I first discovered Mitchell when I randomly bought his first album Voyager (Dune Records; 2001) while on vacation in London. It blew me away. It felt like an extension of the soul vibe that Courtney Pine had been developing during the mid-'70s. But it also features some phenomenal work by Mitchell on piano along with some wonderful soulful vocals from Eska Mtungwazi (especially "July For The Smile" and "I'll Be Around"). "Days And Nights Waiting" is another display of Mitchell's ability to combine his classical training with modern jazz aesthetics.
It would be almost four years before Mitchell's Panacea would next release Trust (F-ire; 2005), an album that was more thematic in nature but still retaining the soulful elements of its debut. The album featured more uptempo funky beats like the opener "The Brink," which had a midtempo rhythm with shades of drum 'n' bass. It was also a more focused album with tracks like "The Thief Of Dimensions," "Trust" and "A Heart (Full Of You)" containing more poetic and ethereal qualities that were only eluded to on the debut. A great step forward for Mitchell's Panacea.
Taking a small break from the soul-influenced Panacea, Mitcheel team up with violinist, Omar Puente for the classical focused duet album, Bridges (F-ire; 2006). A peaceful outing that puts Mitchell squarely back in his roots. "Somebody Backstage" is a heartwarming and effective opener that sets the tone and pace for this session. "Mambo Infleuntiado" is fueled with a Latin tempo. Mitchell and Puente play off each other nice and add some nice yet subtle improvised touches. "Almendra" has joyous yet bouncing quality that could sit well alongside side some of the traditional classical duets by even Yo Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax. Bridges is a wonderful divergence and stellar introduction to Mitchell's past.
The one album that should really turn heads is Equinox (F-ire; 2007), which is Mitchell at his most raw and beautiful. The solo piano material is gentle and complex. This transitional album is a journey through what he has learned and what he will produce later. There are moments where I felt I was listening to a young Chick Corea or Friedrich Gulda, who also explored jazz and classical styles. "Equinocturne," "Priceless" and "Passion Radar" all display an artist shaping beautiful melodies as well as creating new patterns of thought for the listener. Equinox is definitely not run of the mill among British jazz albums. It's very European in thought but retains the inventiveness and character of its British creator.
Robert Mitchell would take a further step forward with the creation of his trio, simply called, 3io. The group consists of members of his Panacea project, Tom Mason (bass) and Richard Spaven (drums). They would record the critically acclaimed The Greater Good (Jazz Services; 2008), which is more contemporary and straight ahead than his soul-jazz based work with Panacea. It's will definitely have you thinking of E.S.T., Brad Mehldau or Keith Jarrett, but Mitchell's 3io stands on its own. The trio show a great deal of strength and diversity on tracks like Wayne Shorter's "Dance Cadaverous" and strikingly out-of-nowhere Massive Attack's "Teardrop". The aforementioned covers are re-imagined beautifully, but it's the group own material that is insightful and effective. "The Greater Good" and "Quantum" are both examples of the trio thinking and performing big and bold. These are very tight performances from musicians who have been together a long time. There is a small shade of Panacea soul/funk that is executed here and would be the model for Mitchell's next project.
Mitchell's writing has matured. His ability to move and blend his influences and still have the material sound exciting and different with each record is truly astounding.
That excitement and creativity would once again be on display as Mitchell returned to the soul of Panacea with The Cusp (Edition Records; 2010), which featured material from The Greater Good that included vocals by Deborah Jordan ("A Map Of The Sky" "The Blessing" and "Quantum"). Jordan's vocals and the new arrangements make for interesting comparisons, but both versions stand on their own. Jordan does seem to fit these recordings perfectly. This is most fully realized of all the Panacea records. Mitchell's compositions are more complex and deeper than ever before. "The Essence" is a great example of his technical skills and his leadership. Panacea may be Mitchell's ensemble, but he definitely allows his bandmates their freedom. "The Cusp" is reminiscent of both Headhunters and 4hero. With trip hop beats, soulful melodies and an infectious organ groove from Mitchell.
It's unfortunate that most people stateside don't know about Robert Mitchell. He has carved out a direction that feels inspired by elements of Keith Jarrett, Roy Ayers and Alfred Brendel. These are rare qualities. Robert Mitchell's work is definitely worth checking out. I'm not sure I want to point out one specific album to start with but if I had to I would recommend starting with Equinox and The Cusp. They give two radically different sides of a dynamic and inventive composer. With another 3io record coming later this year I think now is the time everyone take a good, hard listen to one of the UK's best kept secrets.