Robert Mitchell Interview

Written by: Rob Witts

Pianist Robert Mitchell talks about his new album “Trust”, his current plans, and about bridging classical music and jazz: “There’s amazing potential, not only to reduce our differences, but also to go for something very structured but very improvised at the same time… That energy of creating in front of people has a particular power.”

Robert Mitchell is a busy man. “Trust”, the second album from his band “Panacea”, is released on 19 September, and it’s his first on the F-IRE Collective’s label, whose collaborative ethos means more artistic control but also more homework. The pianist has no complaints: “There aren’t pressures from label or management to be something you’re not. It’s a great club to be in; your fulfilment of being a member is to be yourself.”

That musical independence has been hard won. His interests were more or less exclusively classical throughout his schooldays; though teachers and his father would suggest jazz pieces to him, there was, he says, a sense that he was “not worthy, not ready”. That changed when he heard Oscar Peterson playing “on Capital Radio, of all places”, an experience that set him on a new course. “It was so complete, I refused to believe he was improvising. My brain was just ready to hear something like that. So the next day, I was at the record shop, going ‘who is this guy?’, and getting books of transcriptions. And from there I went to Art Tatum and others in that vein … But that was 10 or 12 years after I started playing classical music, and now I’m more than that away again playing jazz, so this is an interesting time for me in the sense that it’s not really about either.”

After cutting his teeth in seminal nineties bands “Quite Sane” and “Tomorrow’s Warriors” (which evolved into “J-Life”), Mitchell was ready to branch out on his own. “Panacea” found form as a powerful six-piece ensemble whose debut album “Voyager” [DUNECD04] was released to critical acclaim in 2001. The new album is the same unclassifiable mixture of dance-jazz grooves, metaphysical lyrics and beguiling, asymmetrical melodies as its predecessor, enhanced by an eclectic range of guests including Norma Winstone, bassist Mike Mondesir and poet Eugene Skeef. “The connection between these people is that I’ve recently worked with them in some shape or form. I’m very influenced in that way by a Belgian group called “Aka Moon”. They will get people in, but their core identity remains so strong that it allows anybody to come in and do their thing. They are still recognisable, but their records always have something exciting.”

Mitchell is Visiting Composer at the jazz faculty of the Royal Academy of Music, and his piano suite Equinox was nominated for a BBC Jazz Award, achievements all the more impressive for his lack of formal training in composition. “I’ve not been in a classroom for the writing thing at all, which is something I actually feel really happy about now. There have been times when I have wondered about various classes, and I have a number of things – organising an orchestral score, for instance – that I still have to go and have a look at, but in terms of getting from a creative idea to actual sounds, I’m happy that it’s something I’ve had to come through and struggle to resolve myself.”

A new challenge has been a collaboration with “Nuance”, a contemporary music group formed from within the ranks of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, led by clarinettist Douglas Mitchell. “We met up in February and experimented with a couple of tunes of mine and one of Dougie’s, and it was like a workshop; everyone there ended up contributing their own approach. There’s amazing potential, not only to reduce our differences, but also to go for something very structured but very improvised at the same time, which is one growing ambition of mine and where a lot of the stuff I’ve been doing comes together.”

Ultimately, says Mitchell, his goal is to transcend stylistic boundaries, arriving at an artistry that is immediate and communicative. “That energy of creating in front of people has a particular power. That’s the thing that can take people out of the situation they’re in, so they’re no longer in a concert hall watching somebody, they’re actually inside what’s happening, because it is coming from something that’s more powerful.“

  • Robert Mitchell’s Panacea plays at Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, London on 5 September
  • The album “Trust” is released on F-IRE Records
  • Robert Mitchell
  • F-IRE Records

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