Robert Mitchell is one of the most original pianists on the UK scene. Mainly known for his Panacea group, he has also worked with US saxophonists Greg Osby and Steve Coleman and in a duo format with violinist Omar Puente.
But this solo gig was the first in a new series at Ray’s Jazz Cafe in Foyles bookshop on London’s Charing Cross Road, a delightful place to watch music with great sight lines, sparky acoustics and nicely bohemian vibe.
Mitchell’s compositions are probing, labyrinthine tone poems which bear little or no relation to classic song forms or the blues tradition. Yet they’re not tricksy or difficult to follow – they seem logical in the way that Thelonious Monk’s compositions seem logical, with a frequent juxtaposition of simple melody and complex harmony. The more oblique melody lines and surprising chord changes sometimes bring to mind the music of Wayne Shorter.
At Ray’s, Mitchell went about his business in a remarkably unruffled, considered manner, frequently pausing for Monkishly long periods between notes and revisiting melodic ideas until he was happy with them before moving on. He often played ‘sound’ as well as melodic motifs, using ripples of notes to underpin his improvisations and frequently embarking on free passages which suggested the more outré stylings of Facing You-era Keith Jarrett.
Jarrett was also invoked in the occasional outbreak of rhapsodic, major-chord lyricism. ‘The Red Bridge v. Round Midnight’ raised a few smiles with its neat mash-up of Monk and harmolodics, with Mitchell conceding ‘I think “Round Midnight” won that time, as usual…’
Mitchell frequently turned jazz piano logic on its head, comping with his right hand and soloing with the left, and even embarking on a piece written solely for left hand which somehow didn’t scrimp on melodic invention or variety. How many jazz pianists have done that?
Mitchell seemed to be looking to surprise himself, in turn surprising his audience too. You can’t ask for more from a jazz musician than that.