Matt Mitchell is a pianist for all styles and moods, a virtuoso who serves whatever music with which he engages. His two recordings as a leader only give you a glimpse at his range. Fiction from 2013 was a series of intense duets with percussionist Ches Smith that emphasized the percussive nature of his piano. Vista Accumulation from 2015 was a quartet date (with Chris Speed featured on reeds) that reveled in longer composition as it resisted traditional forms associated with sax-plus-rhythm-section jazz forms. Mitchell is equally associated with drummer John Hollenbeck, composer, and alto saxophonist Darius Jones, trumpeter Dave Douglas and his quintet, and downtown icon Tim Berne and his bracing Snakeoil band.
Mitchell can be lyrical, traditional, quirky, angular, swinging, and transparent — all at once. But where does be get to show all of those sides at the same time?
I would not have guessed the answer would be on a recording dedicated to the compositions of Tim Berne. But here it is: FØRAGE, a solo piano recital that massages and reimagines tunes by Berne into a languorous travelogue. Mitchell covers a huge spectrum of modern jazz piano here in seven tracks. I hear echoes of Bill Evans and Paul Bley refracted through Corea / Hancock / Jarrett, but I also hear the knottier influence of Thelonious Monk as his lineage has worked its way through Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor, and Don Pullen. I would think, however, that scholars and fans of the instrument will hear more than that.
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The most astonishing trait of this recording is how seamlessly it weds lyricism and freedom. Tim Berne’s music—and the sonic approach of his band’s—is often acidic and percussive. But, just as Berne’s great influence, Julius Hemphill, wove melody through the center of his rhythmic drive, so too do these compositions offer Mitchell the chance to play with beauty. Mitchell does not shy away from the angular in a track such as “Traces”, for example. His two hands mix up a set of polyrhythms throughout, and the melodic pieces thrive on repetition of short motifs. It’s a complex performance. But every harmonic tension is there within a design, and Mitchell’s exploration has a melodic logic. It sounds like a set of puzzles revolving through Mitchell’s hands, being solved and then respun again into a new puzzle—searching and stretching but never breaking a connection to tonality.
There is lyrical balladry here as well. The opening track, “Paene”, starts with the powerful simplicity of consonant intervals, simple chords, and repeated notes. Mitchell lets the overtones ring gorgeously in the hesitations between notes, creating tension and majesty. “Aas” is more oblique and harmonically daring, but Mitchell turns it into a sensuous watercolor of a tune—with lines crisscrossing freely above beautiful, open harmonic beds from his left hand. It is enchanting but avoids every stereotype of the jazz ballad. Perhaps most impressively, it hold the attention of your ear across more than ten minutes as it develops into even more. As an act of improvisation, it is the work of a great composer—Mitchell builds to a climax in which every note seems perfectly placed. On this pair of ballads alone, FØRAGE seems may be the best solo piano record in a decade.
On some of these recordings, I feel moments of jazz piano’s past being reclaimed. “Cerbs” brings me back to my favorite moments from Keith Jarrett’s ECM debut, Facing You, a solo piano set that isn’t much like Jarrett’s live solo improvisations for which he is famous. “Cerbs” finds Mitchell moving quickly as he develops harmonic ideas from bar to bar in a rolling, angular way. The juts and jabs of the tune make it sound atonal in spots, but the logic of the tune’s DNA is never lost, and Mitchell keeps throwing flashes of sunlight at you as the performance continues. It’s a joy, if a jagged one.
There are other joys on Forage, too many to catalog in a review and so many of them being barely describable things. Because every track has a sense of development and growth, it’s almost impossible to put into words the satisfaction there is in listening to “Siin”, for example. What you come to feel, with repeated listenings, is that the composer Tim Berne has found an ideal interpreter in Matt Mitchell. Mitchell ideas and Berne’s ideas are hard to tease apart because the compositions and the improvisation are so keenly integrated. As Mitchell moves through ideas and builds to levels of beauty of excitement, you will find yourself holding your breath.
FØRAGE was sumptuously recorded (at Systems Two in Brooklyn by Daniel Goodwin). Sonically, it seems perfect. Musically, it’s close to a masterpiece.
FØRAGE is not on iTunes or Amazon. You have to buy it directly from Screwgun, which is Tim Berne’s longstanding label, or Bandcamp. Don’t be deterred by the minor inconvenience of this. Just go and get this recording. It will stand up for decades. It’s that good.