After his starring role during the visit to Tyneside of US saxophonist Matana Roberts in April, it was with huge anticipation that I looked forward to the visit of Mitchell’s latest band ‘3io’ (sic). His impact had been massive that night – I was aware of his growing reputation but sort of typecast him after hearing his ‘Panacea’ project. I’d even failed to register him on Steve Coleman’s ‘Sonic Language of Myth’, but there was no disguising a major talent when I finally did manage to see him in person. In the challenging context of AACM alumni Roberts’ quartet he projected as a truly gifted improviser with a musical signature that extends all that I consider to be good in jazz. Echoes of Hancock and Tyner bordered swirling vortices of post Taylor abstraction. Throughout it all ran an architectural awareness of form that confirmed he was more than just a mirror of influences.
Whenever I go to The Cluny I remember the early days of no-fi, and think of the occasions I played free-jazz to bewildered alternative rock audiences with Mr Warthog. It has happy memories, and although under new management has managed to keep a lot of its original character. The evening started well. Sitting at a table with Louise, we were catching up with Paul Bream when Mitchell entered the room, walking to the table with his hand outstretched to say ‘Hi, I’m Robert…’. He then proceeded to tell us about his recent trip to Algeria and riff a bit about the gig with Matana, before retreating to the privacy of his dressing room to meditate. If awards were won for being a genuinely nice guy, Mitchell would garner bouquets every day of the week.
The ‘3io’ presented on this tour is actually an unplugged version of Panacea, sharing the same line-up of Mitchell, Mason and Spaven. Their musical reference points still included something decidedly ‘urban’, but even when tacking pieces associated with Massive Attack and Busta Rhymes there was a solid jazz undertow. Opening with a tribute to the late Bheki Mseleku (‘Cycles’), Mitchell patiently built a solo that encapsulated all of the promise I’d been feeling. If I was surprised by anything that followed it was more the restraint than the artistry.
Most of the pieces were taken from last year’s Gilles Peterson Worldwide award winning album ‘The Greater Good’, and now that I’ve had about a week to listen to the recording it’s fair to say that these were extended workouts. Mitchell’s trio would under normal circumstances be an equilateral triangle, but given the great talent of the pianist they inevitably fall into his giant shadow. Mason played stick bass, which sounded less than woody but still held his corner, whilst Spaven’s accents and brushwork were tasteful and apposite. Bill Evans via Hancock and early ‘70s Jarrett was my abiding impression, and if you have the talent and are prepared to bare your soul musically there are few more rewarding territories for a pianist in contemporary jazz. Mitchell has it, and the pieces floated past like cotton wool clouds.
Recounting his experiences in Algeria, playing with local musicians whilst under armed guard, it was clear that music is Mitchell’s passion. Each solo he played saw him dig deep to wring out as much as he could, rather like an athlete always trying to their Personal Best. It is that wholehearted commitment, allied to a fertile imagination, formidable technical facility and deep understanding of form that make him special.
Gilles Peterson’s gongs may not have the clout with traditionalists that, say, a Downbeat Critic's Poll might carry, but surely it’s only a matter of time before his reputation extends further. Sadly the turnout on the night wasn’t great, but that’s a sign of the times. Mitchell has all the ingredients and is at the very least every bit the musical equal of Robert Glasper, who offers a similar take on the present. Somehow Mitchell just needs to inveigle a wider public profile. In a country that celebrates mediocrity as talent, I wish him luck.