Matt Mitchell

Phalanx Ambassadors
Pi Records Pi 81

One of the go-to keyboardists on the present New York scene, Matt Mitchell has been a sought-after associate for everyone from Tim Berne to Dan Weiss. Re-convening his own group for Phalanx Ambassadors, Mitchell creates a layered program of themes and overtones that ironically in instrumentation updates the line-up of the quintets pianist George Shearing led from the late 1940s to the 1970s.

It’s not very likely any fan of the Shearing Quintet’s pop-Jazz approach could confuse this group of contemporary improvisers with that group’s members, and it’s as feasible that none of Mitchell’s crew is cognizant of the link, even though such major stylists as Gary Burton and Joe Pass were in the Shearing quintet over the years. In contrast to Shearing’s easy listening three- minute tracks, as well, Mitchell’s original compositions range from less than two minutes in length to almost 16. Throughout the seven tracks, textural contrasts and extensions come from Miles Okazaki’s guitars: Patricia Brennan’s vibraphone and marimba, Kim Cass’ bass and electric bass and Kate Gentile’s drums and percussion as well as Mitchell keyboards and acoustic piano.

Contrapuntal tale-telling is most obvious on the extended “phasic haze ramps” the narrative of which moves among the players while uniquely packing the parts close together. This dense narrative combines foreground vibes slides, keyboard sprinkles and key dusting while a slippery guitar solo introduces the rainfall of piano notes and drum rattles. Counterpoint becomes obvious, when despite each instrument pursuing a polyphonic path; Brennan’s lilting strokes oppose a locked-in guitar-piano timbre expansion that’s all brief clicks and foreshortened pulls. As the ongoing melody downshifts, Mitchell eventually breaks it into blunt and brutal sound shards, challenged by guitar and vibraphone embellishments until finally all connect at the finale.

An indie-film soundtrack patina informs “mind aortal cicatrix”, the set’s other lengthy track. Along with Mellotron coloration the stacked patterns from keyboard strums and drum accents create an oppressive heaviness that’s eventually pierced by the theme’s syncopated swing. Maintaining the drama with sluicing guitar flanges and marimba reverberations the tune’s resolution energetically doubles the tempos, while maintaining the narrative shape.

Other tracks range from brief intermezzos to longer sequences where heavy intensity is maintained as respective themes are pushed forward by Gentile’s virtuosic drumming Brennan’s thickened metal bar snaps or Okazaki’s guitar string distortions. Even “ssgg”, which come across as a continuation of “phasic haze ramps”, albeit more formalist and higher-pitched, still evolves with cramped pressure.

Having created a sound and instrumentation that suits his ideas, Mitchell’s definite musical statement will stimulate those who prefer their mettle heavy. But if persists in this style Mitchell will have to ensure the realized program doesn’t become overly claustrophobic.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. stretch goal 2. taut pry 3. zoom romp 4. phasic haze ramps 5.

ssgg 6. Be irreparable 7. mind aortal cicatrix

Personnel: Matt Mitchell (piano, Mellotron, Prophet 6); Miles Okazaki (electric and acoustic guitars): Patricia Brennan (vibraphone and marimba); Kim Cass (bass and electric bass) and Kate Gentile (drums and percussion)