Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Matt Mitchell Rocks Out Impressively with New Jazz on ‘Phalanx Ambassadors’

The most versatile pianist in jazz, Matt Mitchell makes a fiery album of new music that definitively rocks even in its intricacy.

Phalanx Ambassadors
Matt Mitchell
31 May 2019

The new jazz coming out of New York in 2019 is rich and fascinating, complex and varied, brilliant and… But doesn’t it also seem fussy and academic at times? Doesn’t it too often fail to dance, to move your ass, to punch you in the gut or heart? Isn’t this the problem with so much “jazz” these days? It speaks to the “creative music” geeks and few others.

Not Phalanx Ambassadors, the latest band and recording by pianist/synthesist Matt Mitchell. This is a New Jazz album that also rocks.

Mitchell has always had a bad attitude. Sure, he has all the straight-ahead, bop-and-beyond jazz chops that a pianist in New York can have these days. Mitchell proved that tastefully and creatively in his years with the Dave Douglas Quintet. But then he would go out and make a recording of piano/drum duets with Ches Smith (Fiction, 2013) with titles like “Dadaist Flu” and a sense of ordered anarchy to it. On Vista Accumulation (2015) he recorded with a sax-plus-rhythm section band yet broke all the rules along the way, not to mention calling a tune “Utensil Strength”. His last recording, A Pouting Grimace (2017), could swing but also crackled with Prophet synthesizer, glockenspiel, double-reed instruments, and a sense of growing abandon. It was his most varied and daring work.

Phalanx Ambassadors is better and, wow, much easier to feel. The new recording is more focused and rich in edge. Mitchell uses the same rhythm section: Kim Cass on bass and Kate Gentile on drums and percussion. The quintet is rounded out by two other highly percussive players: Miles Okazaki on guitar and Patricia Brennan on vibraphone and marimba. Mitchell still uses his Prophet in places, but he is truly the band’s other percussionist on piano. The result is a band that rarely distinguishes between rhythm and melody. They are a group always in the process of pushing the music with urgency, even when the tempo is slower.

The partnership between Mitchell and Gentile is central to the chemistry in this band. (Mitchell was key to Gentile’s first, brilliant recording, Manneiquins from 2017, and she has been doing the cover art for her and his recent releases.) Gentile can be a power drummer, though she is always thinking orchestrally, arguably a modern Elvin Jones or Tony Williams. On the opening track, “stretch goal”, she comes out of the gate with ferocious energy, placed very much out front in the mix (by David Torn, the wonderful guitarist and producer who has worked with David Bowie, Madonna, Meshell Ndegeocello, Bill Bruford, and many others). Is the time signature of the tune unusual, tricky? Sure, and Cass, Okazaki, and Mitchell play a complex thrumming bass line together that amounts to the song’s melody.

But your ears and your body do not care about the complexity because the music is simply coming at you with such energy and power that you react a bit as if you were listening to Led Zeppelin. Cass and Mitchell solo first, each with a shaggy melodicism that is complemented by Gentile’s subtler but still insistent time behind them. When Brennan jumps out for a vibes solo, Gentile turns up the heat more, matching a percussion instrument with more percussion. Then Okazaki begins a wild statement that breaks up into distortion as Gentile gets even more thundering. Finally, the band plays a treble clef melody that is precise and clear above this energy, with guitar, vibes, and piano twining together like the rope attached to a life ring.

This combination of wire-tight guitar, vibes, and power drumming will surely remind some listeners of the music of Frank Zappa, who loved to trick out his buzzing jazz-rock compositions with chiming mallet instruments. Mitchell’s use of Brennan and Gentile, however, doesn’t have the shine of some kind of progressive, orchestral rock—it is usually more urgent and frayed about the edges. But the similarity is in how these instruments express both a tribal throb and the precision that serves some very sophisticated melodic writing.

Not everything on Phalanx Ambassadors is as kick-ass and pulsing as that opening track. Indeed, the longest performance, “phasic haze ramps”, is a more contemplative ballad structure that mostly unfolds as a dreamlike collective improvisation. Gentile remains critical (and, arguably, still in Elvin Jones territory) as she sculpts the sonic landscape with her cymbals. Vibes, guitar, and piano begin by interweaving lines in a dreamy fashion without a set tempo or clear harmonic structure. Still, the music is lovely and tonal, centered around a key or scale much in the manner that Miles Davis’s early 1970s bands (as on Bitches Brew) were both exceedingly free but still not overly dissonant. But between the four and five-minute mark, the band starts to coalesce in moments around melodic motifs that sound predetermined. As quickly as these nodes appear, the players slide off into collective improvisation again, their ears burning for the next chance to (briefly) come together. This is modern music with modern sounds that also feels tied back to the loose-but-together playing of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, albeit getting there via the music of more contemporary masters such as Henry Threadgill and Steve Coleman.

The shorter pieces, however, tend to get down to thumping business with meandering. Both “taut pry” and “zoom romp” are under two minutes. The former uses a herky-jerky groove to support a melody that feels like it is perpetually ascending as Okazaki’s guitar and Mitchell’s synth play long notes that circle as they rise, only to circle back lower again. The rhythm section is key here. Gentile’s drums are, again, both precise and merciless as they anchor the operation of the whole band. “zoom ramp” is grounded in her version of pure 4/4 rock, which is to say that even as the backbeat lands steadily, Gentile syncopates all kinds of other accents explosively. Mitchell’s composition is nimble and tricky, but every detail of it works with the groove to create simultaneous feelings of killer pocket and surprise. Cass’s bass flies through the cracks at times, bubbling with improvisation, and Okazaki’s tone is feral and tough, as the piano and vibes chatter freely. But at merely 1:26 it is all as tight as a wrestler’s abdomen.

The last three performances on Phalanx Ambassadors carry the music across its full range, from the more abstract to the earthy, from the something deliberate and composed to something that dances with delight. That isn’t a value judgment, exactly, but listeners who want to hear something in the New Jazz that connects with them from the neck down need only show a bit of patience. “s s g g” is a through-composed melody that finds Mitchell’s piano and Brennan’s vibes in a unison line, also colored by Okazaki’s acoustic guitar. The performance goes almost out of its way to avoid any sense of groove, but it also unfurls as a concerto for Gentile, who is improvising continually and gently, using an augmented drum kit that rings with various bells and other percussion elements. Cass provides a slow bottom, recorded with gravity, balancing the whimsy of the percussion. The composition is capped by a moment of flute-like synthesizer along with the guitar, a flourish that leads us directly into “Be irreplaceable”.

This performance seems similar at first, but it is more restless, with vibes and the right hand of the piano still in unison on a craggy, semi-tonal melody, but now Okazaki is playing electric in a syncopated line that is doubled by Mitchell’s left hand and Cass’s acoustic bass. Gentile is all rolling toms and fizzing cymbals, but the piece is building to a groove that is actually more powerful than the overt rock feels in those short tunes. The percussive melody line, the thrust of the bass tones, and Gentile’s gathering storm are brought together by a rippling synth part (hinted at by “s s g g”?) until all of it fuses into a dancing double-time. From an abstract beginning, the composition—which seems to contain little improvisation—achieves something like “swing”, but without any jazz cliche, something like the dance impulse in Afro-Cuban music but without the clave, something like the unmechanical backbeat of rock ‘n’ roll, but generated from a different place. This new music, in short, goes from seeming studied to being felt.

The last performance, “mind aortal cicatrix”, recaps everything on the album, a recursive wonder that starts with careful arpeggios that begin to fragment and pull apart, shifting the band into a looser time feel that sure feels like a swaying swing. Brennan solos in what sounds like a rippling overdub of both vibes and marimba as the band turns rubbery and smooth. Mitchell’s piano solo follows over this groove, though it is set in counterpoint to a synth screech that ups the tension leading into another composed section and then Okazaki’s improvisation, which also sounds like twinned guitars in a jagged counterpoint. By this point, Gentile’s drums are in a fervent polyrhythmic lather, but one that feels grounded in good old four-four time.

Which is to say that Phalanx Ambassadors ends much as it began: rocking, getting down even as the instruments all come together one more time in an intricate line that demonstrates Mitchell’s giddy melodic imagination and his ability to orchestrate something that makes a quintet sound like an army of energy. The collective impression—when you’re through hearing the full sequence of the recording—is that you’ve just heard Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch supercharged by George Clinton’s Funkadelic or the Bach cello suites performed backward and upside down by Cecil Taylor, Jimi Hendrix, and Tony Williams, descended from musical heaven. This, finally, is the New Jazz cut free of its No Fun Here smarty-pants-ness and soaring into some joy. This music is sexy as well as smart.

Miles Okazaki brings a flamethrower to the date, even though he is subtle. Matt Mitchell swings some and thunders the keys too. Kate Gentile is larger than life in powering Mitchell’s dazzling compositions into a punk-ish abandon. You can feel the energy of this band in your bones even when you can’t count the time signature. Phalanx Ambassadors is proof that creative music has an id. Listen in to feel contemporary jazz gather power and a purpose.

RATING 9 / 10