“With Classical and Jazz – because of my background – it’s always like I’ve had those things around me. So it’s just about the level of inspiration at any one moment or what is needed for each situation.” Robert Mitchell
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
The Dood: Who is Robert Mitchell? We know you were originally born and raised in Ilford, Essex but what influence did your parents have on you in your formative years, given your fathers esteemed musical background as a vocalist and theatre performer, most notably in Carmen Jones at The Young Vic?
Robert Mitchell: Well, huge! This project (Invocation) is partially a reflection on many of those times. Interestingly enough, I just got round to watching the Channel 4 programme that the classical pianist James Rhodes is doing about organising a musical instrument amnesty. This is in order to fulfil the “Government Promise” of having every kid at least to be given the choice to give music a go. I can’t underestimate the effect of firstly, just having an old piano in the house when I was born. I gather that was there when they (my parents) moved in – and that’s a remnant of generations past in this country. Delving just a little bit into piano history, it is shocking to know that there were apparently three hundred manufacturers in this country over a century ago. More recently, there was none for a while. I’m sure there are barely four now. But there were huge swathes of people involved in the piano manufacturing industry at that point in time – maybe two out of ten in parts of London alone. So before any type of music media – record players, cassettes, radio and everything else, it was the only way that many people got to experience music. And the other thing was my father’s love of music already. A number of pianists would come round to rehearse with him. Then there was also his own music lessons and the beginnings of mine which were sometimes several times a week. My first music teacher lived around the corner from us. It was two minutes across the road. As a father myself now, I already have more than enough experience to know the difficulty so many may have in getting an introduction to music participation in the UK. This is in particular with regard to providing a chance for everyone to delve in and know the effect of actually producing a sound on an instrument. So having music in the family was a massive plus.
The Dood: I understand you were about six years old when you started having piano lessons?
Robert Mitchell: Yeah, I began at six. Classical piano… whilst at the same time hearing my dad’s love of Spirituals and Musicals and the popular songs that were made famous by people like Harry Belafonte or Paul Robeson. There were others, but those figures are inestimatable within black music history and history in general.
The Dood: Hereditary-wise where are your parents from?
Robert Mitchell: My mother is from Barbados and my father from Grenada.
The Dood: How many other Mitchell siblings are there and have any of the continued on into music?
Robert Mitchell: I’m an only child…
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
The Dood: I understand two Jazz piano heavyweights; Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum made a profound impact on you, initiating a distinct mental shift in your thought process with regards to Jazz?
Robert Mitchell: Yes, they really just started me off in it. My only mental process before was that I couldn’t get to grips with it! (Laughs) That may sound strange. There are so many things in this music – the ensemble working together for example. For pretty much all of my earliest musical experiences on the piano, these were playing solo. But the time was right for me to hear them. There was something great about the way that Oscar and Art played, that you could hear a classical element in their technique. I could hear that in the sound of both of them. But then it was trying to decipher how they were able to improvise and why the written page was just left behind… And how they would end up with this amazing result. And of course, hearing the conversation, the interaction, the togetherness. How were three people able to sound like one person; just like one giant spirit? There were a lot of questions, that I needed the answer to – and fast! I mean the little story is that during my A-levels I was up working late and I’d heard Oscar Peterson. Literally the next day I was in a record shop and getting tapes and obtaining transcripts of books and bits and pieces. I wanted to know why Oscar Peterson would play a C major chord and it would sound one way – but in Tatum’s hands – it would sound different. And that struck me immediately, that all these fantastic people, they are all distinct.Obviously you’re not going to mistake one approach for the other. Obviously it helps if they’re from very different generations and countries and everything else, but there’s still something that’s like – Wow! How did your character get to be so completely encoded in sound; it’s just so fascinating! There were a lot of other questions but those two legends set things up for me. My dad would ask me often, “What do you think about playing Jazz?” He pushed Scott Joplin in my direction. It was always a case of “I’ve got more practice to do because I’m not quite there yet.” And so this was a few years before joining bands….
The Dood: Your thoughts please on the passing of Joe Sample?
Robert Mitchell: A giant and a legend both in Jazz and Soul. A legend in both piano and keyboard playing. We have lost so many in the last few years. It all feeds into this need to acknowledge the amazing masters while we have them. Also in terms of their longevity – it is important that they’ve made an overarching contribution. George Duke as well, Charlie Haden, Kenny Wheeler – I mean this whole recent period is so tragic. Their contributions have been at a high level – for decades. Very much counter to the speed and triviality that is given priority in the largest parts of the media. There’s nothing better than to see that kind of greatness over that length of time. Their example is a great lesson in itself. There’s a great film coming up soon on Clark Terry as well – he’s also been very ill in more recent years. Into his 90s, he is still teaching a great young pianist. Incredible. The length and breadth of the careers and the contributions that they’ve made; these things should be heightened and underlined in schools. Deep devotion, and the unlimited creative potential of us all. Somebody can have a number one and buy fifteen cars etc. (although maybe less so these days!). To me the greater thing is having that person and their writing contribute something deeply considered. And that may take a long time to get to. On the classical side there are people like Elliott Carter – this is a guy who was composing at over one hundred years of age! Also he was dealing in phenomenal creative ideas and metaphysical questions within music. Unsuk Chin – is another. A future giant from South Korea…..Jazz has inspired all sorts of music and people, but whether they’re on the front page or on the TV is a whole other matter. Joe Sample was able to have his light shone on a large audience (thanks to the Crusaders etc). A beautiful intersection – where nothing was diluted.
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
So I think it is important to see those figures that really delve in and get fantastic broad results as people to champion. I mean, look at Sonny Rollins. The recent interviews and things that are online are mind-blowing. And here’s the thing, it ties back to music education and getting an instrument in everyone’s hands. Often, when you have that and you’re able to keep physically in shape, the creativity never stops broadening; it never stops broadening, however old you get. And he is a prime example.
The Dood: I interviewed him in the nineties, again this year. His philosophy is still the same.
Robert Mitchell: It’s not about retiring at a certain age… it is lifelong learning. So he (Sonny Rollins) in turn will be grateful for the people and the incredible era that bred him. Obviously there is a huge amount of talent out there regardless, but we want the playing field to be a level as possible for everyone, so a connection with art can be opened for anyone at anytime from anywhere.
The Dood: Like a lot of your peers, such as Steve Williamson and Rowland Sutherland studied at the renowned Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Was the experience enriching, enlightening, as well as educational?
Robert Mitchell: Yes, all of the above. The exact format was the ‘combination course.’ I don’t know if that’s the right term. My degree was at City University, but my instrumental lessons were at the Guildhall School – so we had the best of both worlds. At the time I think only the Royal College of Manchester and Manchester University doing something similar. My original teacher was Malada Robinson and she was the lady who was working with my dad and was very local to me. My teacher at the Guildhall was a guy called Norman Beedie, who was both brilliant and intense (laughs). He studied with a phenomenal lady called Nadia Boulanger. Nadia Boulanger was based in Paris and she had taught Quincy Jones and many others. And like my first teacher Malada Robinson she was teaching into her nineties. Again….more longevity! So he (Norman Beady) was brilliant and a great contrast to Malada. He was very particular in the way he had to question things very deeply and break music down into small particles, which had to be assembled with a thought process and a feeling. You had to derive more for yourself and in many ways you’re starting again. They are both an important part of the inspiration for ‘Invocation’.
The Dood: How long did you study at the Guildhall School of Music for and did you cross paths with any other musicians or vocalists who are well-known on the Jazz scene today?
Robert Mitchell: I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that before! I was there for four years in all. I had a little scholarship that extended my three-year degree. Apart from Deborah (Jordan) obviously, I don’t think I have crossed paths with any other musicians from those times – in jazz scene terms. One of my meetings there was with a wonderful pianist called Dave Maric …He’s a fantastic, composer, he’s done very well, having his music played by world-renowned percussionist Colin Currie amongst others. We did a sort of rip-off of Herbie (Hancock’s) and Chick (Corea’s) two piano concert while we were there!
The Dood: You did your apprenticeship on the live circuit music circuit, playing in a cross-section of musically diverse bands/groups during the 1990s; most notably, J-life, Quite Sane,Tomorrow’s Warriors and Gary Crosby’s Nu Troop. Can you give a brief synopsis of what each group gave you in terms of musical fulfilment and education?
Robert Mitchell: They’re all extremely important to me, especially in terms of bridging the gap between being very much solo in terms of my musical interaction and working in a group. I had not been in any groups before ‘Quite Sane.’ I was introduced through their first saxophonist, Mervin Samuels who was a student at City University in the computing department. We met one Tuesday evening at the big band session that they used to run at the University, and we got talking and one thing led to another, and I joined the band about a year and a half later.
The great thing is with ‘Quite Sane’ is the type of influence they were into really resonated with me. I think the fact that it was primarily around the axis that joined people like Steve Coleman and Greg Crosby, Gary Thomas, Cassandra Wilson to the Jazz approach of a Chick Corea and the various sort of streams of Hip-Hop at the time. That sort of combination also added to that need to express yourself in your way; which was one of the most wonderful things to be a part of. You had to sit and deal with “What are these elements in your identity? What is your life about?” “What are you struggling with?” With ‘Tomorrow’s Warriors,’ ‘J-Life’ and ‘Nu Troop’ it was all so exciting, but in a different way in terms of working with Gary Crosby and Jason Yarde, saxophonist and composer (who was in Quite Sane after Mervin). Through him, I was introduced to the Jazz Warriors scene and all of its off-shoots if you like.
The (Jazz Warrior) overlap with ‘Quite Sane’ was soley Jason. I don’t think anyone else from ‘J-Life’ played in ‘Quite Sane,’ but we were all known to each other. And then to be able to go to jam sessions – I remember us having to build up confidence before we even set foot in a jam session! Learning and failing on stage and then performing regularly in front of people is an enormous part of this kind of thing. You can learn and practice as much as you like, but you got to be playing in front of people. This is to actively gauge the feeling of how things are coming across and how well things are being accepted or not. I think one of the first masters of this i would have witnessed would have been Courtney Pine; watching how he would be working and maximising the drama in a gig for the enjoyment of people. And later on, people like Omar Puente as well. The fire in his music – is via dancing, and the improvisation. If people haven’t danced then we’ve partly failed! These are very powerful things that the masters bring to every performance. You can only get more control over them by performing the fantastic gigs and going through the horrible gigs. They were all my introduction to different sides of the scene and so many fantastic artists and people.
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
The Dood: Back to the 1990s, UK Vibe interviewed UK flautist Keith Waithe. You were an integral part of Keith’s band at that time. From your viewpoint what was the vibe like within the group and across the UK Jazz scene as a whole?
Robert Mitchell: I haven’t seen him in ages. He’s brilliant! He’s amongst one of the most talented band leaders as well. In a way that it was very much like a family. As with all of the groups that you’ve mentioned, it’s just another perspective, another way of doing things. It’s funny you mention him because I have just been watching the fantastic Charles Lloyd documentary, which has come out on ECM.
Keith’s band were in Lithuania in the mid-nineties and I think that might have been the first time he’d returned (as it was now a former part of the Soviet Union ). We bumped into them, either in the hotel lobby or the airport or something like that. It was only brief but he has a very powerful h;attendance as a person. It’s quite incredible watching that documentary – but a lot of it makes sense. He is powerful in spirit and intent – before he picks up the instrument. Some of my earliest touring experiences with Keith (Waithe) and some of the playing with his band at the Ealing Jazz Festival in particular and in Sudan were in front of the biggest audiences for me at that time. That was kind of interesting, just seeing the ratio of mix in terms of how much of the Caribbean and African and Asian music was going to be blended with improvisation. Again – quite different from the aims and vibe of ‘Quite Sane’. Not completely, but the proportion of these influences varied from group to group. I was in that group for eight years, it was fantastic! So was getting to play with tabla player Aref Dervish, who at that time had also been with Nitin Sawney for a good while. There was Eustace Williams as well – the wonderful bass player. Being in these groups and playing jam sessions was a great barometer for meeting folk and seeing what was going on. It’s a shame the Jazz Cafe and the Rhythmic didn’t carry on in the same vein. Jam sessions at the Jazz Cafe were the original sessions where Tomorrow’s Warriors and Nu Troop built skills in the early days. That would happen every Sunday. Then after that we did the Rhythmic for a while, which was in Old Street, but that closed. And then I did the Effra as well in the early noughties…
These all formed parts of a flexible viewpoint on education for me; it can obviously be very much formalised in the classroom, university or music conservatoire, or through an on-the-job apprenticeship (the jam session being a great example). I think they both have great importance, and the blend if you can get it is fantastic, because they lend themselves to transferring information in different ways, in which you may find one approach more valid than the other. It aids openess and plasticity in thinking. It’s great to bring the classroom to the stage or the stage to the classroom; it’s quite nice to turn these things to face each other and integrate. To me the scene has never been short of fantastic talent, the main problem stems from access – for those who wish to partake, and for those who want to listen. We still need better tv/internet channel coverage.
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
The Dood: This eclectic musical background to your ‘remedy for all diseases or problems’ a.k.a.’ Panacea’ in 2000, which has subsequently performed at numerous countrywide and worldwide Jazz festivals, releasing two albums and garnering numerous accolades along the way. What was your mindset behind the formation of the group ‘Panacea’ as yet another creative musical outlet?
Robert Mitchell: Yes, you’re right about the healing thing – I’ve got a lot of nursing in my family. Medicine and music are obviously very closely connected. Panacea was what I most deeply wanted to express in that format. Bands are hard work, they are fantastic things to learn from; but really to even start I had to make sure I had people who were just into the music. Mostly originals from me. I have no time or inclination to try to convince people, so I had to make sure that they really wanted to dig in, which had been the case with every other group I’ve been involved in. And in many ways to step up and lead entails a big difference in terms of responsibility and self belief compared to being a sideman/women. And for me it’s been very much an apprenticeship. It does not surprise me at all that there seems to be a number of books coming out debating the leading styles of (John) Coltrane or Miles (Davis), Duke Ellington, Count Basie and how that can be used in a business context. I think that it’s not a surprise; it’s another art form as well – to get the best out of a team of fabulous talent. But as with any team if one person changes, the team changes – the music changes. So I was influenced hugely by several things: the music obviously, but also how somebody was able to get a great sustainable team result.
Hermit Pascoal is a great example in terms of his devotion to it and his bandmembers’ devotion to him. I’ve had some great chats with José De Santos Netto, who was an MD of his for a while. Prince is another great example, and I’m sure there is a connection in leading style to James Brown, Miles Davis etc. I was also just hearing about the band members from Plectrum Electrum, the young girl group who do more of his rock stuff right now. They may get inspired at four in the morning….and so they record there and then! Sometimes he (Prince) won’t even want a new tune played completely before he recorded; he just needs to preserve the vibe of where they’re at and then its red light time……
I’d been working on the music for Panacea throughout the nineties. So I am over the moon to be at this stage, having worked with Deborah (Jordan) and Tom Mason (bass) for so long and with Laurie Lowe (drums) for some years already. A fantastic blend. The greatness of working with a group for so long means that you reap so many great benefits. You’re able to get things off the ground to a workable stage quickly and the approach to collective problem solving becomes richer. Actually, we’ve done three ‘Panacea’ albums, and each one has been different. The whole album thing is another conversation! (laughs)
The Dood: How vivid are your memories of your performance with the ‘Panacea’ ensemble on Gilles Peterson’s BBC Radio One Worldwide Show, which was subsequently nominated for Session of the Year at the 2006 Gilles Peterson Worldwide Awards?
Robert Mitchell: Very! I’m not sure how many times I’ve been to Maida Vale before then; there might have been something with Keith Waithe back in the day. As always, it was mind-blowing, you can really feel the history in that building as you walk inside. It was a great privilege to do it. When I sat down to put the band together I wasn’t thinking about where it necessarily would lead to… So a day like that was a wonderful bonus! We were really over the moon to have Norma Winstone, who is a great singer, friend and cohort of Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor and a legend in her own right. So yeah, it was a very enjoyable shot in the arm. I guess we were doing something right, and it’s nice to be acknowledged. I think I had a brief interview with him then as well.
The Dood: What are your thoughts on the cross-pollination of Jazz and Classical music?
Robert Mitchell: With Classical and Jazz – n n auk, because of my background – it’s always like I’ve had those things around me. So it’s just about the level of inspiration at any one moment or what is needed for each situation. That’s going to be a big part of my sound because I was thinking about little else from the age of about ten to fourteen. I was extremely obsessed about getting what I could in terms of pushing my abilities and control of the instrument as far as I could. Now it’s expanded through teaching, and there are various exercises that I either do or recommend. And also added to that is the amount of information available on the Internet. There are amazing websites in which people are putting up a multitude of books from many different brilliant teachers over centuries. These can give you an even more detailed account of all the great contributions to piano technique and a more bespoke aid in shaping each pianists own potential.
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
So when it comes to the Classical side, I haven’t done as much performing, but i guess in my writing there’s often been an attraction to this orchestral sort of ambition. So getting to do Invocation with a choir of this magnitude (The Bournemouth Symphony Chorus) – has been fantastic. I had to get used to the idea of writing and having the result be performed by that amount of people. That creates a very different expectation when you sit down to write. I’ve had many years of dealing with up to an octet and sometimes a bit more, but you’re talking on a magnitude ten times plus with this choir. The thing with the classical side as well is there is a great history of improvisation when you look at the first sort of branches of organ playing and the history of the cadenza itself, whether in solo works or grander things with orchestras.
So when I think about these things in balance, in many ways I see many similarities and many differences at the same time, but really what we’re talking about is cultural, financial, and international. With the word music – this itself has no equivalent in many places. There’s no delineation, no music school, and there simply is someone you know who can make these great sounds – and bring people together. When a tiny child is ready and showing that they have a feeling for rhythm, whether they can sing back something that is played to them, or clap at a particular part from within a mass of sound; then as far as the people are concerned that child is ready to be set down and really taught and expanded in terms of their connection with sound. And the masters simply will use that to express what is needed, whether it’s a funeral or coming-of-age, or a wedding, or some celebration, there is no division. And in a lot of ways the whole thing with choirs is a great connection back to that.
A great example was actually a gig with Steve (Williamson) that I was talking about with someone else the other day. After this gig we came back to his hotel. Going towards the lift – we noticed a bunch of elder guys sitting around in the lobby whilst there was this choral music coming from the radio in the bar. We get in the lift. For some reason one of the group opened the lift door again and stuck his head out. We followed, realising that the sound was actually being made by these gentlemen. Not the radio. We stood there transfixed. It was just a phenomenal choir…a Welsh male voice choir. One member said he had been a member for fifty years! What must that feel like to blend and get such a sound with no more thinking involved, just spiritual alignment. One member then calls out, “What about this tune? Do you remember this one?” Instantaneously – it appears in all its glory.
So in a lot of ways I see differences only in the syntax, and history and the approach to get the things to happen. I talk now after leading panacea for fourteen years and a number of fantastic experiences with the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus. We are looking for the same thing ideally; to show all the greatness and beauty in the universe. And also with regard to all the different bands and various things I’ve been involved in, the unity and the power that comes out of working together for a cause. As I said with the leadership books on Miles Davis and (John) Coltrane and all the rest of it, it’s all translatable; it’s humanity working together. It’s a privilege for me to work in such depth with all of the family tree of the ‘Tomorrow’s Warriors’ and all of the family tree that overtly link with my cultural background and history. At the same time I was brought up on the border of Essex and London, learning classical music from a lady who had Czech and Israeli culture in her history.
I have the great privilege of working with a wide variety of people, cultures, nationalities, approaches, languages and all the rest of it…And there is as much strength in those similarities as the difference. We unite behind music to move listeners onto a higher plane. The great thing with the Charles Lloyd documentary is that you got more than one of the people who were interviewed about him in tears or nearly in tears. When somebody like that is in the best of form and they’re in with a unit of people who are also aligned and moving with same intent, it becomes more than music or art or anything else. Life itself is heightened and expanded.
I have a problem with the word entertainment. As a component most definitely it is in everything accomplished, but I think as an aim in itself, at the expense of all else – it can be dangerous. In London we just had a lot of headlines about the whole ‘Exhibit B’ – human zoo exhibition. There’s a famous photo of a little black girl in Belgium in 1958 – who is an exhibit in a human zoo. That was entertainment! With John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Charles Lloyd, Django Bates and many others who are entertaining, to me it is not ultimately the most dominant part of the experience. You’re being enlightened, you’re being inspired; you come out of those experiences different from when he went in. Things that seemed impossible – were just shown to you to be possible!!! Those magical moments emerged with people I play (or played) with. Once honed in (even if it took years) – there was something much bigger than us in the room. When everything is working well, there’s a magic that were able to share. So I think it is an important point because there are so many problems for so many people. It’s great to partake in sharing as much magic as we can create. I think it’s shameful that unfortunately, things with lower aims dominate our media rather than the stuff that we desperately need to heal people in the widest sense. That’s the musician in me, that’s the inherited nurse in me (!), and most definitely as a father – a combined concern.
The Dood: I can see this has been on your heart for a long time, given that comprehensive answer?
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
Robert Mitchell: You want to contribute to uplift in a world that should be in a better place having had these amazing people in it. And seeing some of these unprogressive cycles going around again, it’s beyond frustrating. We to have to play our part as teachers and arbiters. As a link to that, we must venerate and appreciate the innovators, the people like your Steve Williamson’s and Keith Tippett’s and Joe Harriot’s – in the midst of their accomplishments (and not primarily leave it for 100yrs after the event).
If you’re looking for inspirational people from any culture to inspire another – there is no shortage. The point is, it has to be presented in a way that is not about the special weekend once a year when it gets crammed in – it’s got to be in there properly on a regular basis. In every form of media. If you are serious about sitting down and putting an instrument in every kid’s hand in the country, let’s actually do it! Let’s not talk about it as a thing to help someone get elected, but let’s actually do it! These things are so very important but they’ve got to be followed through. All these great characters that have been mentioned here .. if they just talked and didn’t deliver, where would we be?
Also – The mere fact that I can’t name more ladies from my course that have gone on to do the Jazz thing is another interview in itself! I mentioned Nadia Boulanger earlier on, as this is one of the most unbelievable figures in music history, male or female, if you just check out her name. And there are plenty of others, so we need the widest acknowledgement of the widest range of humanity. I am very proud to see the Invocation project grow so organically. We had kids from fifteen up to choir members in their 70s taking part in these recent gigs. It’s a great reflection of any big band or orchestra that can show humanity and its broadest, biggest, most ambitious sense. I love the fact that people laugh at someone like an Anthony Braxton who has been creating music to be played by many different orchestras on different planets, simultaneously (!) – but in some ways if we had got things right, maybe this is what we would be doing by now.! The joke is on us… I think it was Jimi Hendrix who said all these different musics on the planet are going to merge and become ‘A Music’. So this is what we may be witnessing. Very slowly – I’m in love with all of it!
Michael J Edwards