Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Matt Mitchell: A Pouting Grimace

Matt Mitchell's latest recording for a large new jazz ensemble is one of the most riveting and original recordings of the decade.

A Pouting Grimace is the latest and most complete statement yet from pianist and composer Matt Mitchell. Mitchell is, to my ears, one of the most fascinating, versatile, and brilliant players in the New Jazz. He plays with intelligent originality when he is functioning as a relatively conventional post-bop jazz pianist. But Mitchell is more truly in his element when he creates beyond “jazz” conventions — not merely improvising freely but more particularly improvising and inventing across a landscape unbound by jazz traditions, drawing on classical music, new music, jazz, the avant-garde, and mainly his own quirky, explosive ideas.

Previously, Mitchell has produced an album of crackling duets with percussionist Ches Smith, Fiction (2013) and Vista Accumulation (2015), on which he used a quartet featuring saxophonist Chris Speed to interpret complex compositions. He also recorded a stellar solo piano recital of Tim Berne tunes. All three of these efforts were daring, breaking past conventions but doing so through both detailed composition and collective improvisation.

Mitchell’s latest is — by some distance — his most brilliant and varied work to date. It is animated by breathtaking compositional imagination and startling arrangements that draw on multiple percussive instruments (not just the drum set but also Indian tablas, vibes, marimba, glockenspiel, timpani, and tanbou) and an unusual range of horns: flutes, sopranino saxophone, oboe, English horn, bassoon, bass saxophone, and contrabass clarinet. Each track is an adventure, but the album is also built as a fascinating whole — with ten compositions arranged into two sections or suites that are set off by equally tasty electronic performances by the composer, alone.

The core of the band is a rhythm section featuring Mitchell, Kate Gentile on drums, and bassist Kim Cass. This group can negotiate the most complex set of shifting or overlapping time signatures and rhythmic patterns while always retaining the feeling of flow or swing. Many of the tunes add the attack of vibes, marimba, or glockenspiel, shimmering waves of percussion that lock into or work in tense contrast to the rhythm section. “Plate Shapes” finds Ches Smith and Patricia Brennan in constant rattling conversation, which overlaps with Mitchell’s similarly rhythmic piano — and with his gorgeously integrated work on Prophet 6 synthesizer. For these webs of conversation alone,
Grimace is a must-hear recording. On the same track, however, Mitchell orchestrates Sara Schoenbeck’s flowing bassoon and blues-bent sopranino saxophone lines by Jon Irabagon. All of these waves of cross-conversation are mediated by carefully planned shifts in time signature, hooky figures that emerge from the ensemble, and jigsawed melodies that come together and veer apart.

It is not too much to call these compositions magic tricks: fascination emerging from chaos and sliding into a middle ground where the players can break free and express themselves. And the coolest thing of all is that unlike some of the New Jazz, the music is unafraid to swing like mad. “Mini Alternate” starts with a straight-up walking bass line (granted, it is swinging in 9/8 time, but swinging hard nonetheless), over which Scott Robinson rips a bass saxophone solo that brings to mind Hamiet Bluiett. While Mitchell solos, Smith begins to color the groove with glockenspiel and other hand percussion, and eventually Robinson’s sax and Ben Kono’s oboe enter the breach to bring us the composed section that Mitchell was building too. And this part, too, is infused with rollicking swing.

The third tune in this initial suite is “Brim”, which — as the title indicates — overflows. Five horns are layered in percolating composition, with the rhythm section, percussion and now also harp (Katie Andrews) creating a surprisingly focused flow of time and texture. The composition ebbs and releases, with the tempo slowing into short sections of more transparent impressionism, allowing improvised duets to emerge and then vanish back into the groove — finally creating a composed bass figure that finishes the suite.

The second suite of three compositions builds similarly. “Gluts” initially appears to be a performance for piano trio, with Mitchell/Gentile/Cass moving like a fleet 21st century Bill Evans Trio, all brushes and gorgeous harmony but with little patience to settle down. There isn’t a melody, per se, but each gesture sounds composed so that the improvising forms a composed set of waves. Then, wonderfully, Anna Webber’s alto flute gets a solo over vibes, bassoon, and harp, leading us into a series of fantasias that slowly merge the trio and the chamber group into one.

“Heft”, the middle piece in the second suite, incorporates Mitchell’s Prophet synth again, along with saxophones at the extremes: Irabagon on sopranino and Robinson again on bass. The main motif is a booming set of thrusts in the bass register, played by the ensemble. In between these sections, Mitchell has composed a set of playful counterpoints for piano, sopranino, and percussion that have a childlike quality — as if a monstrous presence passes through, leaving innocence behind. “Heft” followed by a lightness.

The conclusory piece of the suite again harnesses a larger ensemble, conducted (as was the last conclusion) by Tyshawn Sorey. “Sick Fields” is decidedly more a chamber piece than most others here at the start, working in pastels and subtle percussion, simmering rather than swinging, then catching short bits of tabla momentum about four minutes in. Kono’s English horn takes the lead for a while, and then a groove starts to gather as Webber’s solos in Threadgill-ian fashion on alto flute. Mitchell restarts things one more time for a piano feature, his fingers dancing amidst harp, marimba, and percussion. The composition melts away into Mitchell’s synthesized concluding piece.

A note on the solo synth compositions: some seem a bit like palate cleansers (the brief “Bulb Perminus” and “Deal Sweeteners”), but they are worth your attention. The last one, “Ooze Interim”, is subtle but many-layered, with waves of melody rising and falling through a mixture of other detailed sounds. What I like about these compositions is that they are not piano tunes dressed up with a different sound but, rather and importantly, compositions that could only be played on a synthesizer — with extraordinary sustain, with slow movement of pitch across traditional intervals, and with a control of volume, tone, and intensity that is specific to an electronic instrument. Their presentation in the context of equally unique and specific compositions using traditional instruments makes a statement: Mitchell is looking for ways to express ideas and feelings that elude most of the older methods and means.

A Pouting Grimace requires weeks to digest, in my opinion. It is a massive collage of sound — deliberate, considered but also spontaneous, loud and grooving but also a whisper of subtlety. Each time I listen, the relationship of the parts to each other (the order in which the performances are presented, the way they echo each other, the contrasts they present) comes clearer to me but also changes. My review tries to suggest what’s here but not what you might feel if you listen intently and carefully. Which you should.

The only thing that taints the music for me, just a tiny bit, are the titles, which seem deliberately cheeky. “A pouting grimace” is not what this music evokes for me and, I feel reasonably certain, for Matt Mitchell. The titles are, perhaps, a small and ironic push back at the need to title things at all. For this music — beautiful and cranky, provocative and shimmering, so connected and also so various — speaks for itself and is beyond simple, descriptive language.

To my ears, which have enjoyed decades of jazz history but crave new places for swing momentum and blues tonality to go, there is great joy in the new of this music. And my ears, after countless hours of listening and wishing that classical “new music” understood the zinging *spark* of improvisation and swing, feel finally at home in the world of Matt Mitchell’s creations. Words can’t describe it, and shouldn’t. But it is something like a new day.

RATING 9 / 10