Feature: Robert Mitchell

Picture of Robert Mitchell

Interview by Tom Breslin

All F-IRED up! Skilled pianist, accomplished composer, thought-provoking lyricist, and general all-round nice guy! London-based Jazz maestro Robert Mitchell has a lot going for him, and things can only get better following the recent release of his acclaimed album, Trust. A collection of nine original songs, this is the second album – with Voyager, released through Dune Records in 2001 being the first – that Mitchell has recorded with his band, Panacea, and it comes at us via F-IRE Recordings (spiritual home to those esteemed outfits Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland). With glowing reviews coming thick and fast from the critics, and that all-important airtime provided by Worldwide guru Gilles Peterson, Trust looks set to propel Robert Mitchell into the consciousness of many a music-lover this year. And deservedly so!

Your musical CV is positively overflowing, and the first thing that catches the eye is the sheer range and diversity of the bands, tours and projects that you’ve been involved with. By way of introduction – for those not fortunate enough to have heard your music – what have been the highlights of your musical journey thus far?

I will keep it short (!) and pick some out: Quite Sane – the first band I was in. This was a contemporary meeting of many musical worlds – Funk, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Classical etc. Meeting Mervin Samuels – a great sax player – at big band meetings during my time at City University, and seeing the band come in to the University to record a demo began to change my life. I auditioned a year later and got in. Playing with Greg Osby, The Roots, and the Jazz Warriors as a result of being in this band changed things further. Jlife – the band that came out of my time in Tomorrow’s Warriors. Tomorrow’s Warriors were an off-shoot of the Jazz Warriors. Small groups based on the Art Blakey finishing school; weekly jams/gigs and consistent study of Jazz standards. There were about 5years of this before Jlife began! Our only album was the first to contain a composition of mine. This was also the first time I had won any competition in music (a European one at that - EYJA Young European Jazz Artists 1997). Very proud of the travelling we did, which included performances in South America, China, India, Lithuania, and many others. Courtney Pine – I was left with no doubt in my mind about the nature of touring after my early experiences with him! I played piano and keys with him, and we toured the UK, Italy and a few other European countries. The band, with Charnett Moffet and Ronnie Burrage, will always stay with me. Like one of Ronnie’s albums, the band was like a Space Shuttle! Add DJ Pogo and Sparkii into things and....Houston, we don’t have a problem! Steve Coleman – the first polymath! He has an amazing musical, historical, astronomical, and computing intellect (amongst others subjects I have probably missed!). Through being recommended by Anthony Tidd (bassist and leader of Quite Sane), I got to perform and record with him in ‘98. An insatiable quest for alignment in certain spheres of knowledge is what makes his path so interesting and important. This experience helped me make certain decisions about my own creative desires. Not enough is known publicly about what is behind the music, but there is a new film – Elements Of One (check www.m-base.com for a link) – that has recently come out, which may start to address this. He is someone who has reached and achieved a high level of oneness with his creativity. Someone please sort this man out with a proper film sound track! Keith Waithe – a beautiful spirit! I was in his band on and off for 8years, and I learned a great deal about travel and leadership with Keith. He is a fantastic flautist who should be more widely known, and I had great experiences in Sudan, and Lithuania (amongst others) with him. Did a one-off with him last March – a massive Radio3 recording at Maida Vale with the band, the BBC Symphonic Orchestra, and several school choirs simultaneously! Norma Winstone – the most amazing voice I have worked with (and I have not exactly been let down in that department!). Undervalued in the UK, but not so in Europe and the United States. Vocally and lyrically, she is in the same area of achievement as Steve Coleman. The project Shorter Stories (a Wayne tribute) was a major privilege, as have been a few trio gigs with her and (sax player) Julian Seigal; and especially her contribution on my new CD TRUST. Ntoumos – a fantastic Belgian/French band I was in recently. This opened my eyes to the big differences between the scenes here and on mainland Europe – especially the openness with which my European generation has towards experimentation and learning, and the way in which the respective scenes are organised. Opening for Marcus Miller in Lille gave me great pride, as well as our travels to Montreux and the Bath Festival amongst many others. Omar Puente – he is the best violinist I have worked with! His commitment to excellence at all times, and his work ethic in general, have been a very strong example to me recently. We had to form a duo, as I squarely get a multi-dimensional challenge every time we meet. Very proud of the debut album we have done (which will be out in 2006). Robert Mitchell's Panacea – Panacea is nearly 6 years old as a band, but more than a decade old in conception. Our sound is developing every time we meet, and we have benefited hugely from the stability I have struggled to maintain. Both of our two albums have hit several targets very well, but we all know our best is all still within us! Some fantastic things coming up (see below). Writing my butt off over Christmas!

You’re a member of the mysterious and ever-expanding F-IRE Collective, and your new album is released through their F-IRE record label. Tell us about the collective; what’s the ethos, who are the other members, and what is it currently working on?

Collectives in many art forms have been the hub for genuine and exciting progress. The processes, as well as the results (whether perfect or not), have usually changed the landscape (whether intended or not). The only thing mysterious is why they so often have to be the ones to help things progress – as opposed to the structures long set-up to be the 'champions' of creativity. The ethos (but please ask the other members who may well grace these pages) is about quality, and the individuality that should arise from fully satisfying the creative urge. Passing this on with exciting educational methods is very important too. The members number Julia Biel (vocalist), Jonny Phillips (composer/guitarist), Timeline (Barak Schmool's outfit), Seb Rochford (drummer – Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland), and Pete Wareham (saxes), amongst many others. F-IRE is now (post Contemporary Music Network national tour 2005) working on more releases, and just being itself (in a better way!).

The new album, Robert Mitchell presents Panacea: Trust, is a wonderfully genre-defying piece of work. Applying labels – like ‘contemporary’ or ‘modern’ Jazz – just doesn’t quite seem to cut it; and simply saying that you have fused current dance floor influences with more traditional flavours wouldn’t do it justice either. How would you describe the style and direction of the album? Did you have a specific approach at the outset, or did you just allow it to evolve? (On some of the tracks at least, there seems to be quite a dark, almost eerie feel – was this a conscious intention?)

The style of the album is individual, but open at the same time. It goes for purity of expression – through a deep respect for the seeds of that very expression. The pieces were written with the aim of letting them write themselves (as much as possible!). I am only recently moving to the point of envisioning an overarching theme being something I can create a body of work around. Up to now however, what music could work for an album has been decided later, once I feel I have enough material I am proud of. I would rather answer the musical questions first, before being limited by an 80min disc! If there was a dark or eerie feel, it was due to my need to answer the creative urge the best way I could. I only want to be conscious of getting into a new room each time I create. I am not yet at the level to choose the material to make the bricks out of!

Not only did you compose the music on the album, but you also wrote the lyrics for each of the songs. Average nursery rhymes they are not! They sound and feel more like poems that have been laid over the top of music, than typical song-structured affairs. What’s your approach to lyric-writing, and what are the subjects that are dealt with on Trust?

My approach to lyric-writing is precisely that: to aim for poetic levels, so the words can stand by themselves if need be. It’s extremely difficult, but the same areas of flow and possibility open up, once I am dealing with the creation of a tune I am excited about. I have not been writing lyrics for as long as I have been writing music, and each song takes me closer to a point where they will work together to be greater than their parts (well – I can dream). On this point, I thank anyone from the Gerswhins (Ira & George), Anita Baker, Cassandra Wilson, Norma Winstone, Annette Peacock, Kate Bush, Bjork and many others for showing how these things can work. Songs are very obviously multi-dimensional art forms – every atom should be crafted with love, and without a hint of vagueness! The subject matter of the songs on Trust is as follows: The Brink – Can we herald a peaceful age? Cotopaxi – The power of an overwhelming landscape (South America). Breath On The Mirror – Inevitable change. If These Walls Could Speak – A ray of light in an unhappy household. The Thief Of Dimensions – Love strikes! Shukran – Ancient landscape, ancient lifestyles, timeless messages. Trust – Trust (you will get there!) A Heart (Full Of U) – One for my partner. Ocean (In A Small Hand) – An attempt at a 21st century lullaby – for my friends having little ones!

Talk us through the members of your band, Panacea – is this a fairly fixed group, or is it flexible? Deborah Jordan – of Silhouette Brown fame – stepped in, in place of Eska, to perform the vocal duties on this album. She did an excellent job. How did your relationship with her develop?

The band-members are: Barak Schmool – on saxophones. I have had too many creative conversations with him since my early Quite Sane days (more than 10years ago)! He is a brilliant player, teacher and F-ire founder. He has helped the creative music landscape change in the UK – the results of which have only just begun to be felt. Richard Spaven – a bad ass drummer (Mark de Clive Lowe, Platinum Pied Pipers) and Musical Director for Ty. I’ve known him for many years now and there are always new ideas appearing when we play. He has great knowledge across several genres, and the electronic sphere promises more surprises (via the MPC sampler etc). Volker Strater – a great percussion player. He is also a really accomplished visual artist. The range of instruments here has allowed me to dream in high definition! Recording Trust resulted in different set-ups for each tune – whether including Udu, Conga, or Water bowl! Tom Mason – a young acoustic/electric bass player. He has not long left the RAM Jazz course in London, and is already deservedly busy. His progress has been amazing, being the newest member of Panacea. His ability on both instruments allows the band to access a large landscape! One of my prime aims with Panacea was/is stability. I am greatly influenced by the likes of: the Coltrane Quartet (only 5years of existence – but that was only in human years! The reverberations continue!), many orchestras, the broken beat scene, Art Ensemble Of Chicago, U2, Weather Report, Aka Moon (oneness in motion – an amazing Belgian group), Steve Coleman's projects, Anthony Braxton's 4tet (1980s), Chucho Valdez & Irakere etc. Any group where you can see an extra all powerful performer in action, and that extra place where all the energies are working together. And that takes time – it can’t be measured and prescribed, but its effects can be sensed, and they get stronger with time. I have known Deborah Jordan on and off for 15years – we were at University together. The timing was right for her to become the vocalist of Panacea 4 years ago for the above reasons, and the uniqueness of her voice. It has been a pleasure witnessing the news about her voice really start to spread, with the likes of the Silhouette Brown project, Panacea, and her soon-to-be-done solo album (!!!).

There is also fine array of guest performers on your album, including Ty, Eska and the inimitable Norma Winstone. Their obvious talents aside, what was it about these artists that meant they fit the bill for what you wanted to achieve with Trust? The vocal contribution from South African poet Eugene Skeef is particularly ear-catching; what can you tell us about him?

These artists appear, primarily, as they had provided me with some highly memorable moments in the time since my first album Voyager (www.dune-music.com), and, secondly, because I had the relative freedom to ask them. And, of course, they agreed! When you look to remain open, a list like that is just like looking at a diary entry; the only thing that binds all three is that I had worked with them previously and deeply enjoyed it. Eugene Skeef is a legendary educator/percussionist/composer (and father of Mpho Skeef!). He is part of the same South African generation as Bheki Mseleku (and a great friend of the pianist). His experiences in South Africa make my difficulties look like a tin of baked beans! His story-telling, as obviously inspired by events, and also his love and brilliance in performance, result in what you hear. I had actually met him during a trip to Sudan – doing the international workshops for which he is renowned! So it ties this experience up with real completeness. It is also a tribute to the much missed pianist Bheki Msleku.

You have performed on several occasions as a duo with the highly-respected Cuban violinist, Omar Puente; how did this come about, and are there any plans to develop this musical relationship further? What was it like to play at the renowned Havana International Jazz festival together in 2004?

I met Omar at a restaurant in London just under 6years ago. We exchanged numbers and after hearing his 10 piece band playing over the PA, I didn’t believe he would call me. He did. Then I got him to guest on my first CD, and do several performances with Panacea. We have only recently started to perform as a duo, after wanting this musical relationship to mutually develop. It has been amazing so far…with more than one or two standing ovations, and performances in Morocco, Belgium, and Cuba, as well as several in the UK. We release our debut album later this year (watch this space), and are planning a tour. It would be great to go up to Leeds, as he is a bit of a legend in the Leeds College Of Music, where he teaches. It is an honour to play with him, and our similarities (Classical music, Jazz) work equally as well as our differences (Latin music). It is a very different project to Panacea, but feels equally exciting! And it is an obvious challenge; just Violin and Piano, sometimes for a real two-set show. Cuba, and Havana especially, was like a dream. Sounds on every street corner; extremely kind people allowing me to practice on a grand piano in their house; performing in the great concert hall (Amadeo Roldan) and Chucho Valdez's Jazz Cafe; and workshops in two schools filled with some of the most talented people I have ever seen for their age! We have been filmed there - and apparently they have made a TV program about the two of us in Cuba! So, a second visit in 2006 is absolutely on the cards.

More generally, who have been your major influences, both in Jazz and other musical forms? What artists, if any, are making you sit up and take note at the moment?

Major influences include…Oscar Peterson, Rachmaninoff, Art Tatum, Cecil Taylor, Mcoy Tyner, Gerri Allen, Anita Baker, Aka Moon, Steve Coleman, Anthony Braxton, IG Culture, Squarepusher, Autechre, Bjork, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Mike and Mark Mondesir, Jean Michel Pilc, Annette Peacock, Norma Winstone, Cassandra Wilson, Sorabji, Rzewski, and too many others. These continue to inform my dreams! At the moment it could be such people as: Likwid Biskit, Magik Malik, Sigur Ros, Omar Sosa, Joanna Newsome, Jean Michel Pilc, Bjork, Miguel Zenon, Dahu (a fantastic UK Sax/Laptop player - been playing with Me'shell Ndegeocello recently!!!), Brian Jackson, Bill Evans, and the creative force Bob Moog (RIP).

This may make you cringe, but what does ‘Jazz’ mean to you? Some key players have been very vocal in affirming a more traditional and narrow conception of what makes something Jazz, whilst others have been much broader and more accepting in their outlook. Which side of the fence do you find yourself on?

I think Jazz can only continue to exhibit vitality – with continued creativity at its centre. It is, historically, the meeting of African, American, and European musical cultures, and these things have never stopped happening and will continue to happen, regardless of whether we find suitable names or not! They will happen in ever widening contexts as the world continues to be able to bring remote corners of itself closer together. I would rather there be no fence at all, and no definitions apart from the sounds which give you inspiration and those which do not!

Finally, what lies ahead for Robert Mitchell? What future projects should we look out for, and where can we see you performing live in the coming months?

Short term - I play with my trio at the Vortex in London (17 January). We have only played there once before and we got a lovely review in the Guardian as a result of that (4stars!). I play in duo with Omar Puente at the Jazz Cafe (London), before a set from Athena (young vocal artist) on 22 January. We will be previewing stuff from the new album, and there may well be pre-release copies on sale there. The new album will be out later in 2006 – and more gigs to support this are being lined up. Panacea then goes into the studio in Maida Vale for a BBC Radio1 session for Gilles Peterson's Worldwide Show. This will definitely feature Norma Winstone, Omar Puente and hopefully another very special person!. It was wonderful to get an email from Gilles saying all the right things, so I look forward to that hugely. Then on 23 February we do a special gig for him at his Independent Mix night at Cargo in London – with special guests from the TRUST album. There should also be more gigs in support of the album, both in the UK and Europe. We also hope to have a remix or two around at this time! Apart from that, I am preparing music for a fantastic project with Nuance (plus Panacea) – a group of players from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who explore other forms of music. We will be performing and recording together at some point, and the group makes an amazing sound for just 12 -14 players. I am also involved with a project for Nitro – the great black theatre company based in London. This sets several black composers together to create a modern opera. Daunting, but that is what a challenge should be! Many thanks! Robert Mitchell

Robert Mitchell 3io @ Vortex , London , 17Jan 2006 020 7254 4097 Robert Mitchell and Omar Puente @ Jazz Cafe , London , 22Jan 2006 020 7916 6060 Robert Mitchell's Panacea @ Cargo , London, 23 Feb 2006 020 7749 7840. Robert Mitchell's PANACEA: TRUST (F-ire CD05) is on sale at all good record stores and www.amazon.co.uk www.robertmitchellmusic.com (post only - paypal soon) www.myspace.com/robertmitchellmusic www.jazzcds.co.uk(download soon) www.virgin.net www.hmv.co.uk (downloads soon) and soon at www.underground-soul.com (CD and download) Debut album VOYAGER available from www.dune-music.com

Tom Breslin, Jan 2006

All Basic Soul Features