Matt Mitchell - Phalanx Ambassadors

Label: Pi Recordings, 2019

Personnel – Matt Mitchell: piano, mellotron, Prophet 6 synthesizer; Miles Okazaki: guitar; Patricia Brennan: vibraphone, marimba; Kim Cass: bass; Kate Gentile: drums.


Visionary keyboardist Matt Mitchell has been contributing extensively to make our modern jazz times richer. In order to tackle seven demanding compositions that relate to one another in very peculiar ways, he gathered the horn-less quintet Phalanx Ambassadors, which includes guitarist Miles Okazaki, vibraphonist/marimbist Patricia Brennan, bassist Kim Cass, and drummer Kate Gentile. These intrepid musicians had to possess exceptional qualifications to deal with such a rigorous structure and instrumentation, including advanced reading skills. Sharing the same taste for innovation, bassist and drummer had been gigging with the pianist as Phalanx Trio, and joining forces in the Mitchell/Gentile co-led project called Snark Horse.

A perpetual vehemence enwraps “Stretch Goal”, which begins with the drummer stressing urgency while a certain mystery arises from the complementary instrumentation produced in the lower registers. Cass puts a lot of energy in his soloing effort, while Mitchell swings in his very own way, blending wild patterns and multi-shaped phrases with an impeccable articulation. Brennan and Okazaki also bring their special sounds to light, culminating a sequence of improvisations that comes in reverse order from what is normally expected.

Whereas “Taut Pry” is relentlessly polyrhythmic, “Zoom Romp” is daring, tossing ideas around a rhythmic core that relies on some rock musculature and M-base attitude. Both pieces last less than two minutes, unfolding like a diagrammatic juxtaposition of odd patterns, and their tonal approach differs from “ssgg”, a spacious, chilled-out sort of soundtrack suitable for an abstract, surrealistic tale with accomplished integration of acoustic guitar, piano, vibes, and well-measured bass notes. On her part, Gentile implants extra rhythm in the sonic frame, employing rattling sounds, cymbal color, and sharp resonant sounds as produced by a woodblock.

Almost comparable with a restless mind unable to stop thinking in circles, “Be Irreparable” seems to be struggling to settle down. The haunting textures, usually vague and soft but having a rocking propulsion navigating underneath, are symptomatic of both unsubstantial and worldly natures. Also gaining rock expansion, “Mind Aortal Cicatrix” delivers fancy cinematic orchestrations, forging thrilling polychromatic pathways with marimba and mellotron in the mix. Shifting tempos and moods are frequent practices and the group addresses the transitions with refinement. This is the kind of composition that puts on display striking individualism coupled with rhythmically solid ensemble playing.

The nearly 16-minute “Phasic Haze Ramps” brings a mix of swirling psychedelia, sophistication, and elaboration. An optimistic utopia built with ostinatos and other odd-riffing expressions skimming over routine curved surfaces. The improvised timeframes never feel mechanical, but they're rather graspable in the sense that we feel that humans are playing it. It all ends mischievously and without a warning.

Prone to polyrhythm and unconventional textural work, Mitchell thinks out of the box with his music sounding accordingly. You may allege this is all very challenging and often dense, but let’s face the facts: is it not sufficiently creative to make you plunge headfirst into its insoluble aural puzzles?

Grade A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Stretch Goal ► 04 - Phasic Haze Ramps ► 07 - Mind Aortal Cicatrix

Tim Berne / Matt Mitchell - Angel Dusk

Label: Screwgun Records, 2018

Personnel – Tim Berne: alto saxophone; Matt Mitchell: piano.


Last year, innovative pianist Matt Mitchell released Forage, a great solo album whose audacious material consisted exclusively of compositions by alto saxophonist Tim Berne, the man who had hired him in 2012 to play in the progressive Snakeoil band. The musical bond between the two men is so strong that a duo album was almost inevitable. Hence, Angel Dusk is now available and features eight tracks that pair Berne’s agile phrasing and resonant angularity with the perceptive, if intricate, tapestries of Mitchell. 

The session opens with “Perception/Reception”, which gets strong forward momentum without being constantly busy. It shapes into a lyric reflection imbued with precise movements and emotional force. At some point, Berne embarks on circular crusades, having Mitchell's regularly paced chords darkening the mood for the time they last. Even remaining enigmatic until the end, there’s light in the sharp unison lines, which also endure on the subsequent short tune, “Not Too Two”. 

Exception/pest” flows with an instant liquidity. Mostly amiable in nature and exhibiting a classical-tinged artistry on the piano, the piece is temperate in its last section with a sort of rebelliousness that surfaces under the guise of explosive saxophone statements. Things are maintained hot on “Starfish Blues”, in which the swift interplay becomes massive and irreverent, and on the hyperactive “Petulance”, a recipient of ritualistic saxophone drives delivered with scorching trills in the mix and a complete command of the language. Denser harmonic progressions are adopted as accompaniment.

Both “Chance” and “Snail’s Pace” take their time to evolve, embracing a melodic parallelism that, even cerebral to a certain degree, is no less interesting or provocative than the sonic outbreaks. If the former piece goes from balmy to eloquent before returning to the written section, then the latter opens with Mitchell’s mystic rainbows of beautifully contrasting notes, proceeding in 'searching' mode after Berne jumps in with a combination of intimate melodicism and rhythmic agitation.

The constituent pieces of this collaborative work are extremely hard to separate in upbeat or downbeat. It’s much easier to associate their organic sounds with light and darkness due to the timbral coloring of the knotty textures. Berne and Mitchell sculpt and engrave with an absolute sense of anticipation and direction, making their set of explorations a stimulating listening experience.

       Grade  A-

       Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Perception/Reception ► 05 - Starfish Blues ► 06 - Chance

Matt Mitchell - A Pouting Grimace

Label/Year: Pi Recordings, 2017

Lineup – Matt Mitchell: piano, Prophet 6, electronics; Jon Irabagon: soprano and sopranino saxophone; Ben Kono: oboe, English horn; Scott Robinson: bass saxophone, contrabass clarinet; Sara Schoenbeck: bassoon; Anna Webber: flutes; Katie Andrews: harp; Patricia Brennan: vibraphone, marimba; Ches Smith: vibraphone, glockenspiel, marimba, timpani, percussion; Dan Weiss: tabla; Kim Cass: upright bass; Kate Gentile: drums, percussion; Tyshawn Sorey: conductor.


One of the most adventurous pianists and inescapable presence in the scene is Matt Mitchell, who, besides his own work, is a fundamental piece in Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, Dave Douglas Quintet, Darius Jones Quartet, and Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls.

The cover of A Pouting Grimace, his latest work, exhibits an intriguing collage of figures that assume different forms, textures, and colors. This illustrates Mitchell’s compositional style and music. These forms sometimes live secluded; other times they collide with other forms, metamorphosing into a new creature with a totally different texture, consistency, and visual appearance.

The off-kilter sounds on the album respond positively to the high bar raised with his previous quartet-session Vista Accumulation. It is layered by an enthusiastic set of musicians who performed beautifully within the various formations envisioned by Mitchell for each tune.

Mitchell, alone, opens and closes the album with a soaring monochromatism that stems exclusively from electronic sound manipulations. This is just the skin of a body that transpires many more surprises when its guts are exposed.
The impressionistic “Plate Shapes” is a complex vortex of rhythms and sounds that advances moderately yet compulsively. It feels like a nonstop train running, hastened by Jon Irabagon’s sopranino runs and Sara Schoenbeck’s inquisitive bassoon. Expressing freedom, this trip is a paradise for the instrumentalists and true explorers who alternately dive into unisons, ostinatos, and impromptu ideas in the form of deft phrases and motivic figures.
The combination of Kim Cass' propulsive swinging bass and Kate Gentile’s vibrant drumming becomes best friends with Mitchell’s dazzling textures on “Mini Alternate”, a mutant piece featuring the charming yet cavernous sounds of Scott Robinson’s bass saxophone and the bandleader’s meticulous explorations. Ches Smith on glockenspiel and Dan Weiss on tabla enrich the scenario with quality vibes when the band gets suspended in a hectic groove before landing definitively on an enchanting percussive soil. Fragrances from the Middle East aromatize the air through Ben Kono’s flexuous oboe drives.

Brim”, enthusiastically built up by a 12-piece ensemble, is one of a pair of pieces conducted by Tyshawn Sorey. The group decants a spiral of rampant rhythms and dancing polyphonies that stimulates the senses with its imaginative sounds imbued with cinematic avant-garde flair.

Mitchell, Cass, and Gentile, performing in a classic piano trio formation, launch “Gluts” into the orbit. During the mission, they come across with Anna Webber’s alto flute, Schoenbeck’s bassoon, and Katie Andrews’ harp. Interaction is urgent and indispensable.

Impressively aesthetic, “Heft” is a poignant piece delivered in quintet, whose dual nature encompasses dark and glittery tonalities. Full of spins and thrills, it starts with rhythmic splashes, at the same time that patterned high-pitched piano notes are thrown against the low-toned honks expelled by the bass saxophone. After a recurrent piano phrase of intervallic quality, Irabagon and Robinson embark on a powerful collective improvisation suffused with wild, bouncing attacks, which leaves the impression we have a much bigger band in action. The tune finishes calmly and gorgeously at the sound of contrapuntal piano and sopranino, and an unobtrusive percussion as their friendly company.

Mitchell loves to push boundaries, assuring a gravitational balance that starts in the mind and is transported to his nimble fingers with precision and resolve. Every inch of this uncategorizable music is cerebral, intelligent, and absolutely mesmeric. 
You can put down this one on the list of 2017 mandatory albums.

        Grade  A+

        Grade A+

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Plate Shapes ► 03 - Brim ► 08 - Heft

Matt Mitchell - Forage

Label/Year: Screwgun Records, 2017
Lineup - Matt Mitchell: piano.


Matt Mitchell is a sought-after pianist whose acerbic voice and impressionistic musical vision have been featured in works of likes such as Rudresh Mahanthappa, Dan Weiss, Greg Osby, Anna Webber, Dave Douglas, Michael Attias, and Darius Jones. If this wasn’t enough, Mitchell is a valuable and integral member of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, a collective with plenty of creativity. 
It’s exactly in these creative contexts that Mitchell feels comfortable, however, for his third album as a leader he goes even further in his boldness.

The successor of Vista Accumulation (Pi Recordings, 2015) is a solo work entitled Forage, produced by the sound wizard David Torn and released on Screwgun Records. The album comprises inventive interpretations of seven compositions by Tim Berne, in a recognizable tribute from the pianist to the one who perceived his virtues and abilities, even during a premature stage of his career. 
The attempt of drawing something new and meaningful in this essay really paid off, and the reason is because whenever this inveterate colorist lays his fingers on the piano keys, the resultant melodies and harmonic progressions blossom with imagination, trust, and charm, regardless the intensity and pace they are played.

Even identifying Berne’s traits here and there, the whole belongs entirely to Mitchell. On one hand, we have combinations of Berne’s tunes squeezed into one; on the other, Mitchell’s approach opts for ruminative, intelligible, and reflective thoughts imbued of crystalline lyricism, which feel less hectic than Berne’s renderings.

Paene”, “Aas”, and “Siin” exemplify well these steep dramatizations of temperate character, making us imagine a cross between Keith Jarrett and Paul Bley, pianistically speaking.

In “Cerbs”, the pianist works on a procession of chords and juxtaposed melodies to set the seductive tones that characterize the beginning and the ending. Never static, he reserves the middle section to wallowing in further rhythmic experimentation. In a similar way, “Traces” is conjured with an eruptive plot of textural melodic flurries, which play an essential part of the puzzling structure. Here, rumbling lower-register dynamics interweave with rapid-fire right-hand attacks, forming complex geometric figures of random shapes. 

As a highlight, “Cloude” is an achingly beautiful experience that never stops to mesmerize through a crescendo surrealism. The initial dreamy tones reach the climax at some point of the middle section, where Mitchell’s technique excels with tremendous emotional focus and natural spontaneity. It made me think of an intersection between Matthew Shipp’s fragmented rhythms and dusky classical music.

Boasting a sheer amount of fresh ideas, Matt Mitchell’s Forage defies any categorization beyond the word 'modern'. Tim Berne has every reason to be proud of his reliable and insightful sideman.

          Grade  A

          Grade A

Favorite Tracks: 
01 – Paene ► 05 – Cerbs ► 06 – Cloude