"Time and time again for me - a commitment to connect, grow, and
absorb collectively - has more often meant a positive step forward in the evolution (of anything!)"
Photograph by: R.Kaby
Robert Mitchell, one of the finest and most exciting Jazz pianists of the modern era, talks to Seymour Nurse at The Bottom End,
in a very inspiring interview.
Seymour Nurse: How did your passion for music first develop, and what were you mainly listening to as a child?
Robert Mitchell: It was passed on directly from my family. My father was a vocalist, organised shows, and performed as a cast member in Carmen Jones at the Young Vic in the early 90s, amongst many things.
He had many pianists come over to rehearse, so I got to hear and see this interaction from the start. I used to like doing 'playing about' on the piano afterwards, and I was given the choice to have lessons or stop the noise!
I had a great first teacher who had also given vocal coaching to my father.
Her name was Milada Robertson - and this lasted for 12 years. It took a while to decide to do it seriously. I have been very fortunate to have had these teachers.
These were lessons in far more than just music. I then had the amazing Norman Beedie at the Guildhall School (for 4 years). Their approaches - could not have been more different!
I would have been listening to the many songs my father sung - from Gershwin, Spirituals, Hymns, Rogers/Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Harry Belafonte, Paul Robeson, Caruso, Andrew Lloyd Webber etc.
My listening, and record buying would have started later with Shalamar, Village People, Imagination, Kool and The Gang, Total Contrast, Loose Ends and more, together with classical music - Handel, Scarlatti, Horowitz, Ashkenazy etc.
This was all many years before coming into jazz and improvised musics.
S.N: How did you get into Jazz, and which artists inspired you the most?
R.M: I got into Jazz at about 17, after hearing Oscar Peterson on Capital Radio (London) late one night, when I should have been studying. Think about those two things, a legendary pianist on a radio station where you would not expect to hear that - even late in the night.
I wish I could remember the DJ who did that (and it's probably logged somewhere), as it really was one of those lighbulb moments. The time was right. My ears were ready.
I can definitely remember jazz not working for me earlier on, as my mum used to have it on before "Friday Night Is Music Night"
etc (those of a certain generation will know where that is from!). The next day I went out to find several cassettes of Oscar's music, and wore those tapes out. I kept hearing his name being mentioned in the same context as Art Tatum.
Art was next. Incredible. So that was another set of (mental) lightbulbs blown !- unveiling more of this piano jazz lineage.
Onward from here was Erroll Garner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Stanley Cowell, David Benoit, Geri Allen, McCoy Tyner, Cecil Taylor, Marylin Crispell , Django Bates, Keith Tippett, Eddie Palmieri, Chucho Valdez, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Keith Jarrett and more...
It was also a fascinating time as the UK was going through a period of exposure for home-grown jazz that certainly hasn't been repeated since (to the same mainstream level). So the discoveries on the radio, were also being linked to the visible entities like The Jazz Warriors, Loose Tubes, and thus Courtney Pine, Django Bates, Steve Williamson, Tommy Smith, Jason Rebello, Julian Joseph etc.
This was very important in pushing me to link all I was hearing with where I was musically, and where I would like to be and play. In terms of looking at this as a livelyhood - it sealed the deal. Being inspired to play - is one thing, but being able to see the best local musicians perform here, and soon hear of their progress internationally also had a priceless effect.
I did not study on a jazz course, but immediately started being involved with stylistically divergent groups for many years before forming my own. The difference in my classroom and gig schooling - again - has often inspired solutions or creative moments I would not have had without the presence of both in my life.
S.N: At what age did you first learn to play the piano, and who encouraged you to do so?
R.M: I first learned from the age of 6. This was primarily western classical piano music, and led straight to the graded exams in piano and theory. My father encouraged this, and my mother supported it. I am eternally grateful, and am enjoying starting this process again with my young family. I do think the earlier you start is better, but it is also about good teaching that works well for the stage of the pupil.
I had lessons also on guitar (2yrs) and violin (feels like about 10 lessons from my memory!). Both with teachers of very different character. Later on, I started to perform and accompany my father (in the school holidays).
S.N: You have a very fluent, dynamic and unique style of playing, which is very refreshing to hear. How did you develop your technique?
R.M: There have been many different stages. It is also a lifetime process - as it won't ever stay in one place. Initially after playing for a few years - I had a book put in front of me that has been very influential. It was called "Hanon" -
and it started to make a difference pretty much immediately. Around this time I was being asked many questions in lessons about this side of things, including: hand shape, arm weight, seating distance/height, and being asked to look at pianists with differing styles/physiologies -
to implant the ideal that there is much to be learnt, but of course much to be observed from your own physical shape and relationship to the instrument.
After this came music that had very specific technical aims: by Czerny (who taught Beethoven) and his infamous studies, and then Clementi,
then Bach: simply great music, that just by his developed brilliance, covered certain keyboard solutions within them regardless. Later on, some Chopin, Scarlatti, and Handel - all definitely had a large impact. I also constantly read the Piano Technique book by Lillie H. Philipp
and a book by Walter Gieseking (the great pianist who was famed for learning away from the piano- and fast). It was very interesting to place this in a context for me - almost in opposition to my experiences in jazz and improvised music.
Jazz seemed to be more of a place where an individual's approach and technique are more overtly inseperable. Try separating Cecil Taylor's abilities from his expressive genius. They are one. So within jazz there are more overtly technically fearsome giants - Coltrane, Peterson, Taylor, Braxton.
These directly spoke to me, through sensing large classical influences in their approach (from the West and East). And the place this amazing demand on their instruments took in their artistry. But all vibrant expression needs exact controlling means, and so the crystalline mastery of Bill Evans, Thelonius Monk, Andrew Hill, Paul Bley, John Taylor etc all came to equally represent the apex for me.
As you hit different periods in your playing life, your physical relationship to the piano will change and need to be adjusted for.
There are things I found easier that I have to prepare more for now and vice versa. Within my teaching I have been careful to try to recommend from a range of approaches - eg, the great recent book- Piano Yoga, the left hand only pedagogy of Berens,
or course "Hanon", and/or deriving exercises from inside the music itself. It is so dependent on the player, the abilities, the physiology, the quality of practice instrument and more.
I have just recorded a solo piano album, that features music for the left hand alone. This has been something I have been putting together slowly for a few years.
There is a remarkable fusion of reasons behind this for me. (Sometimes projects can reveal all sorts of connections - that you have to spend time realising. They already exist - but the time is needed to recognise, and clarify their meaning in your life).
I am left handed, deeply interested in handedness, and I am a student of its history, and where that intersects with music and the piano. The unbelievable courage of the relative few pianists, and musicians responsible for performance, and compositions to cater for one hand piano, will always astound me.
It is very interesting as an improvising pianist to contemplate either hand creating alone. There is a great underground history of the one handed approach in both classical,
and even more so in jazz music - and I believe it is completely valid. In fact I think it is very special in its effect on the musician.
Improvisors regularly have to beautifully create and express opinions via their music, and to have the added challenge of expression overcoming limits, especially directly in terms of limiting their tactile access to the instrument, will I believe provide potentially more inspired music.
So musically and technically, my left hand has been getting slowly more limelight in the last few years, and I really look forward to playing more of these pieces on my first solo tour, and thereafter. Definitely more to come in this area.
S.N: What was the first band that you played with?
R.M:Quite Sane. A huge amount of creativity borne out of that group - led by Anthony Tidd, and featuring (during my time) Jason Yarde, Mervin Samuels, Louise Schumacher, Eska Mthungwazi, Eric Appapoulay, Richard Cassell, and Marcina Arnold.
S.N: You have played and recorded with various musicians that include Steve Coleman, Courtney Pine, Keith Waithe, Tomorrow's Warriors, etc. How was your experience playing with Steve Coleman?
R.M: Seminal. He is in a category of one. The connection was made via Quite Sane and Anthony Tidd, and I learned things immediately, on my return, and then much later on. It would need another whole interview (!) so I will summarize.
I believe there are very few people who can change you, immediately, deeply and permanently. The teachers I mentioned above did. So did he.
Most of the interviews I have read on him - do not come anywhere close to the creative aura he gives off, or reflect the nature of his vision.
The books have not yet been written that best underline the importance of his work, and influence on several generations of musicians. The music is an expression of a deeper path to understanding. The mixture of metres are part of the rhythmic hommage to societies long ago - who used multiple calendars - simultaneously.
The internet age has started to redress this gap (including his site - which gave away lots of music - a decade before 'tweet for a track' came along). To use Anthony Braxton's quote - he is a model 'Professional Pupil'. The constant drive for that knowledge to open up more insight into ourselves.
This is largely inspired from the ways of several ancient cultures (especially African, Asian, South American), and is amongst the strongest I have been in the presence of.
S.N: The album you worked on with Keith Waithe & The Macusi Players entitled, "Magic Of Olmec" stood out for me, as it is a very passionate tribute to a great civilisation. How was it being part of that project?
R.M: I think that was one of the earliest recordings I took part in. Just recording on an album was all still so new then! Keith is a fantastic flautist, and extremely charismatic bandleader.
The project was great, I think it was done at a studio in Southall (Kuljit Bharma's place?). A beautiful band - Eustace Williams, Tuup, Helen Macdonald, and the tabla master Aref Durvesh.
The trip the band did to Sudan (during which I had a marriage proposal!) - was another big experience for me. That was the end of that 88 key (heavy) weighted controller's travelling days...!
S.N: A marriage proposal in Sudan... wonderful! You formed the Panacea Band, releasing the album "Voyager" on the Dune label in 2001, the "Trust" album (F-ire label) a few years later in 2005, and then "The Cusp" in 2010 (Edition Records), all superb albums. Panacea is an inspiring musical concept,
and what resonates with me so much is its musical and cultural diversity, as well as the spiritual message that it conveys. How did the idea for Panacea develop?
R.M: This took several years to get to. The band was formed a few years before the first album, and was just taking shape before I played (and recorded ) with Steve Coleman. The name was a reflection of healing - my need to express and find my voice; for those looking for something different; for a long term commitment to contributing compositions I pour my being into.
No time limits, label demands or anything else.
I was most inspired by those who had long term bands/concepts from Hermeto Pascoal, Aka Moon, Pat Metheny, Steve Coleman, Django Bates, Cecil Taylor etc - who seem to create an atmosphere for consistent progression.
It is extremely difficult to do, but the feeling that will develop from getting to write for personalities you get to know well - is worth it. Duke Ellington thrived on it.
Time and time again for me - a commitment to connect, grow, and absorb collectively - has more often meant a positive step forward in the evolution (of anything!).
The diversity is simple - I need to feel I have found the best people available to honour what I have put into the music. Cuba, Australia, Italy, Germany, South Africa, and the UK have all been represented over the time of this band. There is a lot of great talent around. The issue of commitment of that talent to a consistent cause - is a another conversation!
S.N: The rhythm section of Panacea featuring Richard Spaven (one of my favourite drummers) and the skilled Tom Mason (bass) are the members of your 3io Band on the album "The Greater Good", which was voted 'The Best Jazz Album 2009 for
Gilles Peterson's Worldwide Awards', which was well deserved.
One of the things that really impresses me about you as a musician is your ability to venture into so many different fields of Jazz, while remaining authentic, and producing such a high standard of playing, regardless of the music's style. You worked with the very talented Cuban violinist Omar Puente, and recorded the delightful "Bridges" in 2006 (F-ire label). This was a magical collaboration.
R.M:Omar is an incredible musician and spirit. Those students he taught at Leeds College truly don't know how lucky they were! From our meeting at that Cuban restaurant in Waterloo (London), I asked him to guest on my debut album. He returned the favour - and I continue to have an education in Cuban and Latin music whenever playing with his group. We first performed in duo at the Crypt in London, and I remember one
of those first early gigs getting an ovation.. so thought we should do more!
We had out first show abroad in Morocco - which was mind blowing and a very beautiful location. Before we recorded the album - I went to Cuba with Omar. This was another extremely important trip for me. Our show at the Roldan Theatre was later repeatedly televised on a jazz show (with a panel discussing each tune!).
There were many great memories: My being able to find a practice piano in a room, within a fascinating building belonging to a seamstress. The super passionate students and workshops at Omar's former conservatoire. The feel of the whole trip really resonated with things from my own family history. The amazing food and fruit. There are many great memories from there - and we will definitely return.
The same goes for recording with Omar - a wonderful experience, and more to come.
S.N:Omar Puente and the great Soweto Kinch played with Panacea at one point too, and their contribution gave the sound another dynamic flavour. It must have been very exciting bringing those elements to the group.
(Here is a link to one tune from that performance on YouTube): Robert Mitchell's 'Panacea' + Soweto kinch & Corey Mwamba
R.M:The Vienne Jazz Festival allowed this to go ahead with very special guests as mentioned - plus also the great vibraphonist Corey Mwamba. Reza and the great organisation at the festival are doing really great work.
I only get the chance to do this expanded line-up every so often and we had a great time. I would like to do something on a larger scale one day, so it was great to hear the music done this way. Soweto - I have heard since he was a teenager, and we are all really proud of his deserved success. More folk need to know about Corey - and his project celebrating the Derby Jazz 30th birthday celebration will be something to watch out for.
S.N: I agree, more people need to know about Corey Mwamba. I recently saw you performing at the Jazz Re:Freshed session - www.jazzrefreshed.com (Mau Mau Bar, London). The band featured the ingenious Corey on vibes and some very passionate spoken word/lyrics from HKB Finn.
For me, this was one of the most moving musical performances I have seen, as its message was deeply profound. Do you plan on developing this concept?
R.M: I hope we can do some more indeed. We didn't rehearse for that. We have a great deal of shared history - in bands, and within some musical family trees etc. We had not performed together in a while, so it was a great way to reconvene. Watch this space. Here is the website for Corey Mwamba - www.coreymwamba.co.uk
and for HKB Finn - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HKB_FiNN
S.N: You decided to record the solo piano album entitled, "Equinox". I do admire when one produces a solo piano project, as it reveals a more personal side to the artist. "Equinox" is a beautiful album, and the titles of some of the tracks alone ("Each Bird Must Sing", "Star-Law", "There Is A Reason For Everything", "Entanglement", etc..) are an indication of its depth. What inspired you to record this type of album?
R.M: It was the recording of a commission, completed many years before. Originally recorded for the BBC/Jerwood scheme, it was connected to a performance series of solo artists at the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station. I think I remember
Orphy Robinson, Oren Marchall taking part. One amazing old building responsible for powering theatres, and wealthy homes, in 19th Century London. I wrote the music just before and after 9/11 - so it was only going to ever be about peace and balance. Some of this music was used for the duo recording with Omar Puente.
The experience on the great piano at the power station forced me to revise the music. A Steinway D inside such a powerful echo laden building - was immense. I only recently recorded on this type of piano (for the latest solo album) - and you feel every hand-made bit of passion that has gone into the instrument.
It was one of my earliest commissions, and I was eventually really happy with the way the time-pressure had forced me to write quickly. I only thought I could write slowly up til that point!
S.N: What do you have planned for the near future, and what direction do you see your music going?
R.M: I have a new solo album and tour planned involving lots of left hand only music! I also have created a new mini festival - called "Leftitude" (news on this soon!). This will be happening next year as well.
There is also new Panacea music, unrecorded as yet, and an education project involving this will start soon at a university with a great music tradition. More playing with the new duo with the great vocalist Jhelisa Anderson,
the band Usonic (led by Miles Bould and Scott Firth), Ernesto Simpson, Omar Puente, Soweto Kinch (recording/performing his great music for the classic Alfred Hitchcock film - "The Ring"), and Ayanna Witter Johnson.
Personally I wish to create/reveal music that can infinitely expand. Music that wants to reveal interesting places in the universe, not simply to reinforce that which will only temporarily nourish.
I really hope you like the new website. Lots to announce shortly, so please keep in touch, check out the gig list, and sign up for the forthcoming newsletter. Thank you!
S.N: Thank you for this most inspiring interview. I very much look forward to checking out your new material and gigs. All the best to you, and your musical endeavours.
Seymour Nurse & Robert Mitchell at Jazz Re:Freshed
(September 6th, 2012)
Photograph by Alex Coley
Robert Mitchell is a Steinway Artist
Photograph by Alvise Guadagnino The Steinway Piano Website: www.steinway.com
Robert Mitchell is part of the Six-week BBC Piano Season that includes John Taylor's 70th Birthday Celebration.
Robert will be performing a special 1 hour Left-Hand Piano Set on October 1st, 2012 for this BBC event. Click here for more details of the BBC Piano Season
Robert Mitchell's Panacea performing, "The Memoir Cast A Spell" London Jazzed Out (2012)
Robert Mitchell and Kaidi Tatham at Steinway Hall, London Code Emphasis (2010)
Robert Mitchell's 3io, featuring Richard Spaven on drums and Tom Mason on bass,
performing Massive Attack's, "Teardrop" (2009)
Robert Mitchell's 3io, with Richard Spaven on drums and Tom Mason on bass,
performing 4 Hero's, "Third Stream" at Jazz Re:Freshed,
that features an outstanding piano solo from Robert (2009)