Matt Mitchell Interview, NYC

By Filipe Freitas


Name: Matt Mitchell
Instrument: piano, keyboards
Style: contemporary jazz, avant-garde jazz, modern creative
Album Highlights: Vista Accumulation (Pi Recordings, 2015), A Pouting Grimace (Pi Recordings, 2017), Phalanx Ambassadors (Pi Recordings, 2019)

At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to be a professional musician?
There wasn’t a single moment of recognition. Around age 14-15 I probably realized that I spent all my available free time working on music and that it would dominate my consciousness regardless of whatever else I was doing. I didn’t fully commit to being a full-time professional musician until I was almost 34, though.

Your style is impossible to copy. What's the secret for making intricate polyrhythmic lines sound so organic?
This is a gigantic question, and answering is going to leave other gaping unanswered holes, but ok... A short answer is that polyrhythms are actually inherently “organic”. If we’re taking “organic” to mean “somehow naturally occurring or naturally felt”, I could make a case that even the most complex polyrhythms that human musicians play aren’t even organic enough.
Semantics aside, my solution for incorporating any sort of new musical elements has usually been just picking small areas on which to work and just going for it, making the practice and absorption process itself creative. And while I do, of course, use that type of rhythmic material, it’s just a part of a continuum, really. I give polyrhythms a lot of attention because they’re very difficult to really master all the potential implications - and really working on them also helps “on-the-3s and 4s grid” sort of playing/phrasing/writing as well.
In other words, no secret, just a slow building up from a cellular level as with other aspects of music.
As for the notion of my style being impossible to copy, I actually doubt that’s true. Every subsequent generation takes for granted what older musicians struggled to achieve. They don’t see it as hard. I’m turning 44 this week - I can tell you from experience that musicians 10 years younger than me have internalized things in a way my generation hasn’t, and people 20 years younger even more so. It’s the way it is.

Can you briefly describe your gear (I know you've been fascinated by the sonic offerings of the Prophet 6) and tells us in which musical contexts do you like to use them?
I’ve always messed around with synthesizers in various forms since I was a teenager. I’m fascinated with electronic sounds in general and love them in almost every conceivable context. I somehow learned early on that it was best for me to never use presets and learn to program my own sounds. Yes, I like the Prophet because it sounds great and also allows me to bridge the gap between the more “functional” aspects of the music I’m playing - notes/rhythms etc - and the more abstract realms of sound and color. I have a bunch of other instruments including some Eurorack format modular synths, as well as several harder-to-describe devices, all of which I’m doing my best to learn. Plus there’s the whole realm of doing it all on the computer. It all is great and it’s so much to get a grip on, especially while maintaining some sort of control of the piano and also composing! But it’s a golden era for electronic sound, in my opinion.

What are your top 3 jazz albums?
Another vast question. As far as albums that have unending emotional resonance for me, let’s say...
Eric Dolphy - Out to Lunch; Miles Davis - Nefertiti; Andrew Hill - Point of Departure.
Haa, just realized that’s a Tony Williams trifecta. So be it.

Tells us two persons who have influenced you the most as a musician.
Gonna say my Mom and Dad, who gave me the freedom to even get to the point that I could decide to be a musician in any way.

Tells us two persons whom you've never collaborated with but you'd like to.
I’m loathe to come across as angling or schmoozing but ok: Bill Frisell is someone whose music I’ve loved since I was 13. Jack DeJohnette.
Aside from that, there are many many musicians with whom I’ve played a little and would love to play with more: Ambrose Akinmusire, Marcus Gilmore, Justin Brown, Mark Shim. Immanuel Wilkins and Joel Ross are two young dudes who are pretty dang formidable too.
There are way way way more musicians out there than there is time in which to play with them. And that doesn’t count developing existing things, which is a pretty big chunk of what I do. And this is just the jazz world. I’d love to make disgusting electronic sounds with a metal band, or do weird studio doodles on art-pop songs, or make weird beats with folks, etc.

Apart from jazz, what other styles do you listen to? Name a couple of favorites for each style.
Vast potential answer. I’m attracted to all sort of types of music and sound. Again, too much out there. I return to metal, electronic music, songwriters, all sorts of in-the-cracks artists, “modern classical”, etc etc.
Bob Drake - The Skull Mailbox; Residents - The Commercial Album; Morton Feldman - For Philip Guston; Autechre - Exai; Kate Bush - The Dreaming; Frank Black - Teenager of the Year; Portal - any album; Gnaw Their Tongues - anything; Madlib - all the Beat Konduckta and Medicine Show stuff; Bernard Parmegiani - everything; Guided By Voices - anything; Chris Weisman - Everybody’s Old and Valence With Tassels; Ryan Power - Identity Picks and They Sell Doomsday.

In your perspective, what needs to change in the current jazz scene?
I’m not sure I’d change anything. If someone can play authoritatively, then there is a space for them. And really the role of taste is still way under-considered overall. Everyone has a cutoff beyond which they think something isn’t worthy, and that line is different for literally everyone.
I’m a firm believer into saying it with the music, with your playing, your composing, etc. This becomes more of a challenge as one learns to love lots of music. But the musical choices one makes convey certain things, I tend to think.
I’ve decided it’s important for me to strike a balance between creative fluidity and strength of purpose. That said, I create my music based solely on what I want to hear, and worrying about selling it later. Most of what I love does this in some way. Anything I don’t like I do my best to ignore - life is too short.

If you weren't a musician, what would you have been?
The subject I had the most interest in was outer space, cosmology, the universe etc., but that’s a big if as there was no chance I was seriously doing anything else. If I was forced to give up music now, I’d almost for sure write, as in words, probably creatively somehow. Just become a reader of books and writers of words. This is aside from any real world considerations, basically, since I’m probably too old to really switch anyway.

Projects for the near future?
The next album to be recorded will be Snark Horse, which is a project Kate Gentile and I co-lead in which we play one bar compositions with varied subgroups of a set pool of 8 musicians joining us. Later on, there will be follow up recordings for my duo with Ches Smith, my quartet with Speed/Tordini/Weiss, and Phalanx Ambassadors. I plan to do another solo piano album sometime. I’m gradually working on a body of chamber music for strings and piano as well. And other ideas brewing as well...