‘A Pouting Grimace’ by Matt Mitchell Review: Crossing Stylistic Borders With Ease
Pianist and composer Matt Mitchell makes some of the most interesting and complex music on the New York jazz scene, yet he’s a recent arrival. He spent nearly a decade working at the University of the Arts library in Philadelphia, coming to New York only as gigs required. He finally moved to Gotham in 2015 and since then has become one of the city’s most in-demand sidemen, an integral part of bands led by Tim Berne, David Binney, Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas, Jonathan Finlayson, John Hollenbeck and Rudresh Mahanthappa. This may prove to be Mr. Mitchell’s breakout year. “A Pouting Grimace” (Pi Recordings), his second recording as a leader to be released in 2017, showcases two of the most compelling trends in jazz today—the influence of contemporary classical music and the creation of unique harmonies—and pushes them into new and unexpected territory.
“A Pouting Grimace” is Mr. Mitchell’s most complex and sprawling album by far. He often cites the electronic-music pioneer Iannis Xenakis and the great jazz pianist Andrew Hill as formidable influences, and the recording shows this.
Four of the tracks offer solo ruminations from Mr. Mitchell on electronic instruments. And like Xenakis’s most compelling work, several of Mr. Mitchell’s solo pieces are spiky and lithe. I could easily imagine a choreographer who favors athletic movements building a work from “Bulb Terminus,” the 70-second track that leads off the recording, and from two other short bursts, “Deal Sweeteners” and “Squalid Ink,” that appear in the middle of the 47-minute program. ”Ooze Interim,” which concludes the recording, is slower, darker and more ethereal.
Although Mr. Mitchell grew up idolizing piano deities like Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, and their sway can be heard in his solo style, Hill is a cornerstone. YouTube has
Mr. Mitchell’s poignant solo piano rendition of “Dedication,” from Hill’s signature 1964 recording, “Point of Departure.” The ensemble pieces on “A Pouting Grimace” are reminiscent of that Hill recording in their unusual textures and harmonies. Mr. Mitchell employs such exotic instruments as bassoon, bass saxophone, contrabass clarinet, glockenspiel, tabla and timpani to create finely layered rhythms and bright, lustrous harmonies. On the album’s “Plate Shapes,” for instance. Jon Irabagon’s work on sopranino saxophone intertwines with Sara Schoenbeck’s bassoon over a foundation of the leader’s piano, Patricia Brennan’s marimba, Kim Cass’s bass, Kate Gentile’s drums and Ches Smith’s vibraphone. Mr. Mitchell’s group compositions typically begin with off-kilter beats that are played with such drive and intensity that they sound completely normal by the end of the track.
Mr. Mitchell, who is 42 years old, grew up with an understanding that the ’60s jazz avant-garde and ’90s eclecticism were parts of the genre’s tradition rather than outsider movements, and this is apparent both in his improvisations and in his compositions. He has created music that almost casually crosses stylistic borders; it’s an accessible, personal sound that feels rooted in the past but very much of the present.
—Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.