“We are losing heroes and legends all the time. I think there is always room for great creativity – as it can always point the way towards answers for the most difficult of human questions.” Robert Mitchell
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
The Dood: What is Robert Michell’s personal philosophy on Jazz music as a whole?
Robert Mitchell: The same as it is for any creativity. Be yourself. Each of us is a one-off. If there is already room for so much variety – imagine the inspirational level of existence if everyone is fully using that uniqueness as a high proportion of their expression. The world would be unrecognisably joyous.
The Dood: If you recall the first time I met you in person and witnessed you play live was at St Georges Church, London, March 2013 at Jazz Warriors international presents Nexus – One World Music. You performed a track from your eclectic 2013 ‘Solo Left-Hand Only’ album ‘The Glimpse’ as well as performing some improvised pieces with fellow musicians, Roland Sutherland and Adrianno Adewale. How was the experience for you and what are your thoughts on the Nexus concept inspired by Orphy Robinson and Cleveland Watkiss?
Robert Mitchell: It is a brilliant series and an honour to be involved. The church (St George’s, Bloomsbury) has an epic history. Haile Selassie and Emily Pankhurst had passed through the doors. I look forward to doing more with Roland and Adriano and enjoyed an educational repertoire with them on that night. A superb range of musicians have been involved in the night and i trust it will continue into a strong, vibrant future. The scene is wide as it is deep and this is reflected in this unique and historically important series.
The Dood: Regarding ‘The Glimpse’ you mentioned in the liner notes that “I look forward to doing more in this area.” Please expand?
Robert Mitchell: I have more music written for left hand only piano. I intend to record it, and perform it, as well as do more research into the area. I also will be looking to do the Leftitude Festival again; a great unsung music exists for this format and it was a challenge and a joy to record. I had been contacted by a number of interested international pianists – so there is much to do in that area. The website address is http://leftitudefestival.com
The Dood: What are your views with regard to writing/composing and performing structured Jazz as opposed to free-flowing improvisation? Does each have its place within the Jazz idiom?
Robert Mitchell: I think each are a reflection of the same source. We choose to express through one, the other, or both. Each have the need for consistent discipline, rigour, study, reflection and have been inspirational to me. To break away from structure or to find form out of free flow – can produce different results for different folk. I believe they have their place within Jazz, within music, and thus within life. At a time of decreasing amounts of creativity within school education, we turn our backs on underlining the clear continued value of improvisation to the youngest members of society at our peril. It is directly connected with our ability to create, to reason, to experiment, to learn from failure, to innovate – and thus is vital for the development of thinking. I would have thought our evolution desperately depends on this.
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
The Dood: How much freedom you as a bandleader, give your fellow players on stage? Are they allowed to improvise or do you keep as close to a studio/album recording as possible to maintain consistency.
Robert Mitchell: They most definitely have room to improvise (!). We also have plenty of set forms – and both elements change over time. We have performed together for a good while, so not only is consistency derived from our own individual and collective expectations – we have a collective approach that is a natural result of this amount of time together. The feel of us all getting into different gears of synchronicity with each other, from bar to bar, section to section, tune to tune, show to show – is priceless. It’s very slow burn process, but worth every second. So I’d like to thank vocalist Deborah Jordan, bassist Tom Mason, and drummer Laurie Lowe for continuing to illuminate this journey with such commitment.
The Dood: You recently performed as one fifth of Steve Williamson’s band as part of his long-awaited comeback gig at the Pizza Express Bar, Soho, London. That must have been a challenge in itself, given the short rehearsal window you had prior to the gig whilst also mindful of the proximity to and preparation required for your own ‘Invocation’ performance in Bournemouth?
Robert Mitchell (piano), Filomena Campus (voice), Steve Williamson (sax), Michael Mondesir (bass)
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
Robert Mitchell: Yes. But it would have still been a challenge without Invocation! It is inherently the type of challenge that you know will be of benefit to you. So it is more than worth it. Steve Williamson and his music should be represented in the education system at a much higher level than it is presently, If at all. I was just reading pianist Professor Vijay Iyer’s course plan for the PHD students on his course at Harvard. Steve’s music deserves the same degree of analysis, discussion, academic appreciation and contextualisation. The school may need to be built around it – but built it must be.
The Dood: I must say, cometh the hour, cometh the band, because you and your fellow musician cohorts, Filomena Campus (voice), Michael Mondesir (bass) and Seb Roachford and of course, Mr Williamson all looked very assured on stage. You even managed to lay down some very impressive piano solos of your own. Were you all as composed as you looked?
Robert Mitchell: Yes and no! Leaping off of the launch pad becomes more comfortable, but there is still risk involved! The ‘in the moment’ decision making, or looking for that direct phone line connecting to the muse – reminded me of a number of other greats i have performed with – Steve Coleman, Jhelisa, Matana Roberts etc. The music is prepared, but there is the potential for one fantastic moment, opening a portal of creativity – to be mined in a very deep fashion. Our first set certainly didn’t feel like over an hour!
The Dood: I believe Steve Williamson himself was a very contented man, because he was quoted from the stage as saying, “I love this band!” What is your impression of Steve as a person, musician and band-leader?
Robert Mitchell: He is to be considered in the highest echelon of creator. (I would need to write a book to answer this fully).
The Dood: How long have you been Steinway artist and have they been good to you?
Robert Mitchel (piano), Seb Roachford (drums), Filomena Campus (voice), Steve Williamson (sax)
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
Robert Mitchell: I have been a Steinway artist for 5 years and it has been a high honour and an ambition for too many years. It always feels imposing to walk into their London HQ – as the history on their walls speaks volumes. They are part of the DNA of the modern piano and pianists for nearly two centuries.
The Dood: How often do you sit down and listen to a new the Jazz album?
Robert Mitchell: It goes in waves. It is a mix at the moment – ‘Mirrors’ (Kenny Wheeler), ‘Art Official Age’ (Prince), Syro (Aphex Twin), ‘You’re Dead’ (Flying Lotus), ‘Symbiosis’ (Bill Evans, Claus Ogerman), ‘Pexo’ (Walter Thompson).
The Dood: Of the myriad of artists you’ve worked with, be it Norma Winstone, Jhelisa Anderson, Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, Mr Pine and Mr Williamson to name a handful, which if any would you love to work with again either in the live arena or in the studio?
Robert Mitchell: I have learnt tons from absolutely everyone you mention. The easy answer is – everyone!
The Dood: In which direction do you think Jazz is or should be heading in general i.e. Swing, Bop, and Modal – Where next?
Robert Mitchell: I think it should be headed towards utopia. There is a beautiful diversity of potential around. I hope it can be put to good use – and have a positive effect on us. We are in need of more tolerance and understanding – and i think i contribute so good intent gets promoted more often to the front of stage. The styles you mention are ways to categorise music – after the act. So i wouldn’t be able to predict where it is headed. I think it is dangerous, and pointless. I aim to continue to contribute – not to sway a stylistic direction – but to pay honour to the opportunities i have been lucky to experience, and develop them as far as i can in the direction of positivity.
The Dood: Your offerings please on the strength of British Jazz nowadays. Which of the current crop of fresh young creative UK talent has impressed you over recent years, be it on piano or within Jazz music per se?
Robert Mitchell: There would be so many to mention but i could start with Corey Mwamba, John Escreet, Nathaniel Facey, Seb Pipe, John Turville, Shaney Forbes, Hammadi Rencurell, Lewis Wright, Trish Clowes, Moses Boyd, David Lyttle. I think there has always been a great collection of talent, and there are more ways for this to be recognised these days. But that doesn’t mean that things are close to being in a good place of general recognition. I don’t think it is – and hasn’t been since the 80s. The strength of the scene is nowhere near being recognised strongly.
The Dood: Given your twenty years plus of experience, what advice would you give to young musicians just starting out in the music industry regarding mastering their art and mastering the business?
Robert Mitchell: Bring business strategy into your creativity practice and vice versa. We still do not have enough compulsory business education within even most of the renowned music conservatoires, colleges, or universities. That means a lot of the same problems we view as being a tragedy of the 40s or 60s – are still with us. We also do not necessarily make compulsory the detailed study of successful creative careers of people with the longevity of Benny Carter, Elliot Carter, Artur Rubinstein, Anthony Braxton etc. There are many others, but i would say to a young musician – look holistically at many areas – The music of course, but most definitely the person and the life that gave shape to it.
And use the same depth of judgement for both. And personally be prepared to expect rejection, disappointment, disloyalty, selfishness and duplicity. Also be prepared for extreme excitement, success, pushing yourself harder than ever before (regularly), and the joy of giving and receiving the superb energy that music can transfer. We are losing heroes and legends all the time. I think there is always room for great creativity – as it can always point the way towards answers for the most difficult of human questions.
The Dood: How soon do you get back into rehearsals for your performance of ‘Invocation’ on November 23rd, and will a live recording or studio recording be available at any time in the future?
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
Robert Mitchell: All to be revealed soon!
The Dood: Have you already started writing material for your next project or album?
Robert Mitchell: As with Invocation – this will be announced when the time is right.
The Dood: Thank you very much for your time and wisdom Robert; it was a privilege to get a first-hand insight on your views across a variety of topics. We at UK Vibe along with many others look forward to the live ‘Invocation’ experience on Sunday 23rd November at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards