Artist Feature

Matt Mitchell
By Ken Waxman

After a year’s unhappy experience in the late ‘90s trying to establish himself in NYC, pianist Matt Mitchell, 38, escaped, as he terms it, to his hometown of Philadelphia and got a day job at the University of the Arts’ library. “I swore I'd never again play one music gig I didn’t want to play, and I haven’t.”

He’s certainly lived up to that pledge. Mitchell, who ultimately quit the library job in 2009, is still in Philly. But he now divides his time working in such high-profile ensembles as Dave Douglas’ Quintet, Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Project, Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, Darius Jones’ Quartet, John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble, Rez Abbasi's Invocation, plus his own band with bassist Chris Tordini, drummer Dan Weiss and tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed. Mitchell has also been widely praised for Fiction, his Pi Recordings debut, which is a series of duets with Snakeoil drummer Ches Smith.

At the turn of the century Mitchell wanted to free himself from having to play jobs that were devoted to what he calls “utilitarian” rather than creative music, since he had spent the previous few years dedicated studying his craft. Growing up in Exton, PA, he started playing the familiar so-called classical repertoire at five (“although I remember ‘improvising’ at the piano before taking lessons,” he says), but wasn’t exposed to jazz until his early teens when his father brought home two tapes: The Best of Thelonious Monk and Wynton Marsalis’ J Mood. “I was attracted to the music because it sounded crazy and new to me,” he recalls. “Also I was looking to get into playing ‘other things’.” The other things soon escalated into playing “house” sessions with the likes of bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Ari Hoenig, and eventually an undergraduate degree in music from Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington and a masters from The Eastman School of Music (ESM) in Rochester, NY. With one of the oldest university jazz departments, IU was an easy choice, Mitchell maintains, while “Eastman initially came about because I frankly had no idea what to do after IU and I was also interested in other things such as the music history and composition and orchestration classes.” Serendipitously trumpeter Ralph Alessi was one of his teachers at ESM then and the brass man subsequently became a friend and “vital figure” with whom Mitchell continues to play regularly. The pianist also teaches for a week each year at Alessi’s Brooklyn-based School of Improvisational Music, his busy schedule permitting.

Mitchell admits that another reason for attending ESM was “not feeling ready to plunge into any scene at the time. I’m not sure I ever felt ready in a way. Maybe I sort of gradually materialized into the scene instead once it finally happened.” So after his disappointment NYC experience, he continued to hone his skills in Philadelphia, where the late ‘90s, he and a group of friends started Scrapple Records to document their playing in various configurations. Vapor Squint, Antique Chromatic is an electro-acoustic CD released in 2007 on which he played, then processed, edited and reassembled the tracks. “I'm definitely proud of that disc, and I have continued working on similar types of approaches,” he explains. But I keep getting hired to play piano so it's hard to find enough time to do everything justice.”

Hiring Mitchell to play piano may cut into his own musical explorations, but it’s proven to be a boon to others’ bands. Most of his gigs, he explains, come about in “the typical ‘jazz way’. One leader sees me play with someone and hires me, or I got recommended by someone for something else. John Hollenbeck, Rez Abbasi, Rudresh Mahanthappa … that was a chain that happened for me one year which was nice to experience. I think Dave [Douglas] was tracking me for a little while from afar before hitting me up for his group.”

The affiliation with Berne actually has a longer genesis. “I corresponded with Tim in 1996 when I was at Eastman; I wrote him and asked him for some scores. But I didn’t start playing with him until 2008 when we both taught at SIM one summer. We had a rehearsal with just the two of us, he hired me at the end of it and we've played together ever since.”

By coincidence, the origins of Fiction grew out of his gigs with Snakeoil. “The concept began as a series of études intended to maximally stretch my abilities as a pianist and improviser and also to focus my thoughts as a composer. I wanted to compose free of any concerns involving practice time for anyone other than myself,” he recalls. “Ches became involved as a result of his playfully joining in with me on Snakeoil tours while I'd practice the pieces during sound checks. We played once or twice prior to Snakeoil but Snakeoil is where it really took off.”

The Smith-Mitchell duo is one focus of the pianist’s three-day residency at Ibeam Brooklyn, July 18, 19 and 20. Featured will be three duo sets with Smith that will include all the music from Fiction as well as 12 or 13 new etudes; plus three sets by an extended ensemble called Normal Remarkable Persons. Performing all Mitchell compositions, with the composer on piano, the other band members are trumpeter Shane Endsley; tenor saxophonist Travis Laplante; Berne on alto saxophone; Tyshawn Sorey on drums, trombone and melodic; plus Smith on drums, vibes and percussion. “The sextet was a quintet until I decided to add Ches as a member,” Mitchell elucidates. “We’ve done a couple of gigs before, but this will be the first concentrated run we’ve done. I’ll be writing a new piece for it, since with that band I like to explore longer, more sprawling forms.”

Besides a great deal of sideman activity later in the year with leaders such as Berne, Douglas, Mahanthappa, Jones and Mario Pavone, Mitchell would also like to find time to record Normal Remarkable Persons. However he expects that his next CD release will feature the quartet with Speed, Weiss and Tordini, all of whom, with the exception of Mitchell, live in Brooklyn.

As for his overall concept for the future, the pianist states: “I definitely will continue exploring the areas of music that I documented on Fiction as I feel there’s a lot more to be discovered. But by no means will it be my only focus. Basically I like to try and follow ideas to what seems like some sort of logical fruition, and how this happens usually depends on the groups I play with.”

Recommended Listening:

• Mat Mitchell Fiction (Pi Recordings 2013)

• Tim Berne Shadow Man (ECM 2013)

• Tim Berne SnakeOil (ECM 2012)

• Michael Attias Spun Tree (Clean Feed 2010)

• Matt Mitchell Vapor Squint, Antique Chromatic (Scrapple Records 2007)

—For The New York City Jazz Record July 2014