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REVIEW: Robert Mitchell Solo at the Jazz Cafe

Robert Mitchell
Photo credit: Richard Kaby

Robert Mitchell Solo
(Jazz Cafe, 8 July 2018. Review by AJ Dehany)

Silence is impossible, so he begins. He strikes, neither soft nor hard, one key: the F sharp below middle C. The piano rings, and the F sharp rings until it is overwhelmed by the impossible silence and space. The space swallows the note and all 88 notes of the piano, until there is nothing, not even silence.

This was the bold opening of Robert Mitchell’s solo piano set at the Jazz Cafe, as he played a single, continuous 35-minute sequence of improvisation, the first time he had ever attempted this with an audience present, having had the idea in his mind for many years. He had been reading recently about the preparations Keith Jarrett makes before improvised piano concerts — and also, in light of the recent passing of Cecil Taylor, he felt it was time.

F Sharp. The Beethoven Opus 78 Piano Sonata is in F Sharp Major, starting very slowly. F# is newness — metallic, shiny and golden. Rare and ecstatic. Spiritual, but clashing and dissonant, like faith.

It’s both an exciting and daunting aim to keep a sense of narrative that will absorb an audience, particularly one in a standing venue. The next day the pianist recalled: “It was very much like sitting on a beam of light – you can be overwhelmed by its power – we didn’t create it – so all you can do is negotiate to share its compelling atmosphere for as long as is possible.”

Out of the space, he makes two slow strikes of the A sharp above middle C, then two strikes of the D sharp above that. It could be an F#6 chord, or it could be a simpler D#minor. With all the space between and around the notes, you can’t be sure. This is one of the great pleasures of music, the deployment of uncertainty in a sure way.

The improvisation unfolded, the chordal uncertainties multiplying and filling in the space of the room with patient development, building the music with strong left-hand jabs at the keyboard, leading into dense, fast arpeggios reminiscent of the circular breathing solo improvisations of Evan Parker. The notes filled the room in streams, then stopped… and in the pregnant moment someone whooped.

I’m taken out of myself and feel like, if I’d made that whoop, in spite of my own excitement, I’d immediately have regretted it. I sense that something has changed in the room. Mitchell moves to another kind of playing. He stands and reaches into the piano. Now he is swiping the bare strings on the inside, without tonality, with a gentle but firm percussive attack.

I asked Robert Mitchell about this moment, and he was entirely gracious about it. As a performer he had experienced it totally differently to me as a listener. He had enjoyed that this audience member was so vocally enjoying his playing. He says: “It felt like I had built up a head of steam and expectation of a peak and a finish being imminent but also that I could ask the folk present to continue on this journey with me… for a bit longer… I sensed about five different types of silence/listening…”

Five types of silence should be the title of something, like a set of études that only exist in the imagination and are never written or played out loud… I suspect there are as many types of silence, and listening, as there are people — or infinitely more, as we can listen again and have a completely different experience to the time before, because we ourselves are different from how we were before.

The performance was recorded and it will surely be fascinating for those of us who were there to hear it again. It will in a very real way be a completely different, perhaps unrecognizable experience. Having taken us through the power and creativity of his playing and musical imagination, Mitchell’s improvisation concluded, as many have done in the past, merging into a song—this one is called Can We Care — a typically Mitchell concern.

The performance almost seemed to stand as a microcosm of Robert Mitchell’s diverse journey as a pianist and composer. We have followed him from the R’n’B-inflected songs of his group Panacea and his left-handed piano studies, Glimpse (interview), through to the symphonic ambition of his choral work Invocation and the spiritual modernism of his recent trio and spoken word album A Vigil for Justice, A Vigil for Peace. You may be intrigued by this long-deferred embrace of the depths and breadths of longer form improvisation, and you may even be as moved, absorbed and driven to whoops of pleasure as people there so demonstratively were.

*AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff.
 AJ is grateful to Robert Mitchell for his open responses to his electronic questions. Robert Mitchell’s solo set was the support for the Vijay Iyer Sextet, ALSO REVIEWED

LINK: Radio 3’s Key Matters devoted to F Sharp Major

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