Matt Mitchell

Pi Recordings PI50

By Ken Waxman

Having made his name as a commanding and sympathetic sideman with the bands of Tim Berne and Dave Douglas among others, pianist Matt Mitchell first solo disc is as impudent as it is dazzling. Taking as a base 15 so-called études he composed as practice pieces, he and percussionist Ches Smith combine to transform the musical puzzles into full-fledged sonic statements. Complex yet satisfying, the pianist’s hyper-kinetic keyboard command faces appropriate rhythmic challenges from Smith’s punkish beat-making.

A member of Berne’s Snakeoil with Mitchell as well as other improv and rock bands, Smith’s consistent back beat augments the strengths of Mitchell’s mostly mid-tempo tunes. However on pieces such as “Wanton Eon” and “Diction”, Smith’s vibe work is surprisingly pliable and temperate, encouraging the pianist to become freer and more cerebral in his playing.

Throughout Mitchell’s intensity is almost overpowering. With the stamina of an Earl Hines and the dynamics of a Cecil Taylor, he commonly ranges all over the keys, swirling out phrase after phrase, chord after chord, and note cluster after note cluster with a velocity that makes it appear that a new trope is beginning before the last finishes echoing. Tunes such as “Dadaist Flu” seem all forward motion with barely a metaphorically breath allowed. Additionally, when Smith adds to the staccato brutality with syncopated thumps, you wonder if a tune such as “Upright” should be renamed “Uptight”. Every piece is constantly lively; but at the risk of masking subtleties.

“Action Field”, the longest composition, is one of the few where technical facility relaxes enough to expose Mitchell’s multi-faceted skills in this recital. Interestingly enough it’s also here where Smith’s kit smacks are more open, à la Sunny Murray or Milford Graves, than confined to more common rock-like strategies.

Never less than captivating, the performances on Fiction mark Mitchell as a potential major talent who demands close scrutiny. Yet if he’s going to continue to evolve he must learn to temper his prodigious technique with more humanity and composure.

Tracks: Veins; Brain Color; Upright; Singe; Wanton Eon; Dadaist Flu; Commas; id balm; Ohm Nuggets; Diction; Tether; Action Field; Specialty Hug; Nightmare Tesseract; Narcotic Base

Personnel: Matt Mitchell: piano; Ches Smith: drums, percussion, vibraphone

—For The New York City Jazz Record January 2014