Over the past few years, pianist Matt Mitchell seems to have become the iconoclasts’ iconoclast. Last week, he played his hometown with Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, navigating the sharp turns and quirky rhythms of the saxophonist’s weighty compositions at the Art Alliance. A few weeks earlier, he was at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan, playing reconfigured spirituals as part of Dave Douglas’ quintet for the Festival of New Trumpet Music.
The latter show opened with “Bridge to Nowhere,” a briskly swinging tune from the second release by Douglas’ new quintet, Time Travel. But Mitchell’s solo didn’t explode into the expected bop flurry; instead, it shifted into a stark, minimal attack. The abrupt change in perspective was a cerebral shock, like Dizzy Gillespie jamming with Karlheinz Stockhausen.
A few hours before that performance, Douglas referred to Mitchell as “an incredible polymath. … He goes places on my tunes that I would have never imagined and sometimes I’m not even sure how he got there.”
One explanation for the pianist’s heady approach comes in the form of his newly released debut CD, Fiction (Pi). The disc’s 15 tracks were written as etudes, each containing a musical dilemma for Mitchell to solve. As he played the pieces at soundchecks while on tour with Snakeoil, drummer Ches Smith began to play along, and the etudes evolved into algebraically complex duo compositions.
“Part of the reason I got into writing those pieces was so I didn’t have to bug anyone about playing my music,” Mitchell says. “But Ches is like me in that he relishes a challenge for its own sake.” As a first glimpse into Mitchell’s music, Fiction is a plunge into the deep end, akin to introducing yourself via cryptogram. But that complexity, he says, “is in some ways the most honest for me. I also have a trio that plays longer forms that feel like tunes as opposed to these little napalm nuggets of psychoticness. But that isn’t super-forgiving, either. I wouldn’t quibble with someone who thought this was too much.”
Mitchell grew up in Exton and studied at Indiana University and the Eastman School of Music. He moved to Philly in 1999 after a single year in New York City, where he landed an incongruous job playing on a dinner-cruise ship. He played infrequently over the next several years, though his listening palate broadened to include electronic and noise music (Nurse With Wound, Merzbow) and art rock (Henry Cow, Art Bears). He formed a trio called Kaktus with trumpeter Aaron Meicht and drummer Lars Halle, which rehearsed extensively without gigging much. In 2008 he began teaching at Ralph Alessi’s School for Improvisational Music (SIM), where his fellow faculty included Tim Berne.
Years earlier, Mitchell had contacted Berne to request scores for some of his music, but the two didn’t play together until a faculty concert. “Playing with Tim is a way to maximize your abilities,” Mitchell says. Around the same time, he was chosen by John Hollenbeck to be part of the Big Ears ensemble assembled for the drummer/composer’s 2009 residency at the Painted Bride. From there, Hollenbeck enlisted the pianist to supplement his Claudia Quintet and to join his Large Ensemble. That brought him to Douglas’ attention as the trumpeter was assembling his new, younger quintet, which debuted with Be Still, a collection of hymns and spirituals.
Despite his packed schedule, Mitchell has so far resisted the temptation to leave Philly for New York. “When I come here, it’s pretty chill,” he says. “And after being here for 14 years, I guess it’s home. I’m not sure I’ll be here for another 14, but who knows?”
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