Robert Mitchell is one-of-a-kind. I normally write a short introduction for these interviews but there is no need, just take in these incredible responses to my questions… [above, Robert’s album releases to date]
What is your earliest memory of the piano Robert?
There was an old one in the family home – which was already there when my folks moved in. The remnant of a time when they were in many houses (before record players, cassette decks etc). I would mess around on it before I was asked about taking lessons….
What was your learning environment like as a child?
I had a teacher locally (as in – one minute away from where we lived!). Milada Robertson. A fantastic teacher – who had tons of pupils and who taught into her 90s. My father used to sing – eventually professionally – and had lessons with her before I was born so – I was lucky to have music in the family and a route to learning that was physically closer than either my primary or junior schools!!
[Robert recommends this BBC Radio 3 programme ‘A Social History of the Piano’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01msj6v ]
Where did you grow up?
Could you describe yourself in, or with, 9 words?
Let’s get stuck in with what’s happening now. Our part of the world seems to be going completely mad with self obsession… I believe your next album, ‘A Vigil For Justice. A Vigil For Peace’ is a response to these unsettling times? When did the process begin for this latest work? Were you already writing music and then felt compelled to do something more with the music or was there a concept there even before pen or pencil touched paper? … so to speak…
The music came out of the last few years. No one concept was in place before – as the album is not solely in response to the madness (hence the tribute to Debbie Purdy and other songs like Saved By You). I wrote the stuff after having done a large scale work for choir, strings and my band so – was writing freely and developing the ideas that appeared – without a deadline! However – I found it easy to be inspired where it came to the news. My own path to being in this part of the world doing what I do – has been based on a large amount of support. As a parent and teacher I am seeing younger generations here – rapidly being deprived of expressive opportunity (unless you are rich). Years ago this might have been harder and slower to confirm – but these days the arrogance of the 1% coupled with the speed of the digital discourse means that they are not even trying to hide the fact (or are just doing a bad job of it). The arts have always commented on life – and I think jazz could do more right now to address imbalance, civil rights and injustice. Reggae, hip-hop and classical music – amongst others – have blazed a path in these regards… and the result is to push towards deeper levels of communication needed between those who think differently. Art makes so much about living feel better right? So these are the times when this core ability needs to come forth – and help to neutralise so much divisiveness. Indeed- the only thing we should be making great again … is the world. So taking everyone’s viewpoint on is very important. I am not sure about the word ‘integration’ but deep interaction and honest communication – for the betterment of everyone – absolutely.
On your website you have a new video ‘I watch you trace my dreams’ as part of the album. Is this a collaboration with the dancer, Masumi Endo?
Indeed. I was introduced to her by filmmaker and DJ Garth Thomas – and it has been a joy. It is great to interpret dance through improvisation – and has been wonderful to have Masumi choreograph ideas to both the music and poetry from this project. We will do a workshop (with Q&A) just before the Ealing Jazz Fest (on the 27th July) – to talk about this. The area of dance notation is also very fascinating – and unlike music seems to have several systems all strongly vying for the top spot of consensus. But of course learning by eye – and from video for dancers – is equally fascinating to me. But then so is the instrumentalist following a conductor – or a band self regulating through visual and/or audio cues etc. We may well touch upon all these things at the session (and Masumi joins my trio for our gig at Ealing Jazz Fest too). I was recently able to get together with some of her friends in Tokyo to do a Facebook live jam – and I would love to do more. So can I also say thanks to Izumi Tomohide, Daisuke Sano, Yurie Nakamura, Satoshi Miya and Yu Naruse.
Is this the first time you’ve written poetry? What inspired you to release this poetry? I know you regularly work with a vocalist in Panacea so the use of the human voice is not new to your work (not to mention your huge choral project with the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus!).
I have written lyrics for more than 20yrs – and so the poetry has grown organically along the way. This album was not the first to feature it (my 2nd – Trust – had a narrated piece included – called Shukran). The poetry is more extensive this time round. The inspiration was the subject matter and its weight in the scheme of things. A first collection of poetry will be out later this year too (as it is no fun to read this many words on a vinyl sized inlay!).
I look forward to reading that then! Have the poems been selected from the last 20 years or just more recent times?
They are recent and surrounding my work on the latest album. It is a first for me so need to consider if any lyrics and poems from the past would qualify through my present day scrutiny ! But I have enjoyed this process and would love to do more. The digital album contains seven poems – and not all are in complete form so this is all covered in the book (to be announced soon!).
What is ‘Leftitude’?
A festival for left hand only piano! We held it once before in 2013 – but would love to do it again. Sadly our first venue – The Forge – has closed now. I would like to do left hand only playing, research and recording…
What happens at Leftitude? If you didn’t have to think about budget, what would be your ideal venue, programme etc etc? Or is having a budget (and therefore limitations) a good thing?
We had both classical and jazz/improv pianists play programmes they put together. They were : Ivo De Grief and Clare Hammond from the classical side. Pat Thomas and myself made up the rest. We had onstage interviews and the two day event was hosted by Nicholas McCarthy (who was the first to graduate from the Royal College of Music having studied left hand only repertoire).
My ideal venue would be one of the halls that has put on classical and sometimes even improvised solo piano recitals. Or it could just as easily be a new multi-function arts venue that has all the above – but with the ability to have hi-res projections and overhead cameras to illustrate the way some of the music actually works on the keyboard as it is performed.
(There is always a budget !)
Love that idea about hi-res projections, makes one wonder why that isn’t more of a thing actually…
What can you tell us about your next solo record? Your first solo record explores repertoire for the left and right hand only… will the next one do the same?
Nothing as yet – as i am contemplating several possibilities. …
I have actually done two solo records before – Equinox (2007 on the F-ire label) which was a suite about peace (and originally a joint commission in 2001 from Dune/Jerwood/BBC Radio3). The Glimpse (2013 on Whirlwind) was the left hand only one and my first on a Steinway D (recorded at the Capstone Theatre in Liverpool). Both were done with the great engineer Roland Clarke.
Do your two hands have different personalities do you think?
I think so yes. As a left hander interested in left handedness I did a lot of reading on this during the prep for the Glimpse album. The reasons for left handedness are still not completely understood – especially the proportions of such within humanity (as handedness appears more equally spread in the rest of the animal kingdom). So – could it be something to do with culture, religion and education? It seems only a small thing but – yes – it would have made a small difference to have left handed desks at school (remember those kids trying to compensate during their final exams!). I have worked with an engineer on a programme for a BBC recording and interview – who remembers more brutal treatment at school due to left handedness. I have read about Samuel L Randolph’s experiences as a re-emergent. By that he means – a person who rediscovers their true handedness (in his case it was in his 40s). He had been forced to write with his right hand before he even realised he was a lefty (as his grandmother could see tendencies when he was a toddler – and as a left hander herself – wanted him to avoid the horrible experiences she had). It was such a drastic change for him – that his eyesight improved and his face also changed!
There are so many words that are derogatory when defining left handedness eg. http://www.anythinglefthanded.co.uk/being-lh/lh-info/left-handed-language.html
I read a more recent paper about the same reports in Pakistan. One poor boy there had to have his left hand covered in a bag as soon as he got home from school and was not allowed to use it…
So although I got off lightly in my early life experiences – there are still cultural differences. On a number of music tours and trips for example – we are told to be aware of not shaking hands with the left hand etc as it is seen from a religious and cultural perspective as being extremely rude (eg for right handers – the hand you clean yourself with in the bathroom etc). But as a left hander i … never mind !! But i still do a double take sometimes when bumping fists, shaking hands etc as my left hand wants to do it!
So through the filter of left hand tendencies in a supposed right handed world – the hands become different. Through the experience of being both the hand being blamed for my poor handwriting in school but yet being the support to my right hand on the piano – it has a different life from my right. And in spite of my purely technical work on the piano striving for equality between the hands – (yet playing music where the differences between hands can often be stark and continuous) – solo left hand only piano feels like a new and under explored world. So – there is definitely more to do for me in that sphere. There were some calls for learning to write with both hands in the UK a long time ago – but that is for another interview!
Wow, this is fascinating Robert, thanks so much for sharing all of that…! Moving on to another important question, from your own perspective, where does your sound come from? I am always fascinated to hear what pianists think on this subject.
I think it comes from obviously developing abilities on the instrument – in tandem with development of your aesthetic away from the instrument. I remember loving certain moments of the Koln Concert (K.Jarrett) and really becoming fixated on a particular chord voicing. In the days before apps that could slow down recordings (while keeping the original pitch etc) – it required putting your medium (vinyl, tape etc) in danger of being worn out early ! I just couldn’t find that extra note – that I swear he was playing. I found the Schott transcription book one day in Chappells (I know the name changed but – Beethoven visited the shop so they should of fought to keep the name!!). I had got the chord correct – but it was Keith’s playing of the chord that made it so. The sum of the spirit of the person playing – makes the sound to a large degree. But the work to get to that point is unforgiving – and I think relies on constant focus, self demand and scrutiny. Why are you doing this? What are you expressing ? What will the audience take away? Can this work in any circumstance (poor sound, instrument, strange acoustic) ? Is it enough for the individual to faithfully recreate another or can you hear their search for and confirmation of their own unique place in the universe ? Or both ? The demands of playing in many different situations has definitely helped. Am I in the foreground, middle or background – and does this change my range of freedom etc…
Physically if I magnify things – as a pianist – think firstly about the contact between fingers and keyboard. The fact of the individual fingerprint means that the exact measurable area of contact between finger and key will vary from person to person. A skilled pianist will have many different types of touch and this can be altered by the choice of which part of the fingertip and the pressure applied. Add that to the skill of applying weight from elbow, shoulder and back; the flexibility of the wrist, skill in pedalling and all the above questions that form the spirit and intentions of the individual etc. It used to amaze me – compared to the human voice or a wind instrument as we can conceptualise the difference in lung size and breathing more easily. But when I remember especially at the Jazz Cafe jams in the 90s seeing McCoy Tyner and Andrew Hill make their signature sound on that same piano I had jammed on a few hours before…those same differences of course are fully expressible – no matter the means. So we have a grand sum of infinitesimally small differences in the spiritual, mental and physical being honestly expressed – that make the sound of you.
Recently I heard a fantastic young lady on America’s Got Talent – Ehla – and read a little about her story. Originally from the Philippines – she has to literally sing every day at her mother’s food stall to attract customers. At 12 years old it isn’t just the outer sound that is great – you can hear there is a story that has forced her to consider ‘why’ to a deep degree despite her young age.
As a black man of Caribbean and African heritage, born just outside London in the 70s, who has been through the public and private education system here – I was introduced to music through people of several cultures. From it being a living tradition at home, then to school, university and music conservatoire. Inspired to express by a number of great folk in and outside music who unfailingly were themselves – many times in spite of great struggle. So my perspective on things comes through a complex filter of these experiences and negotiating constant change. I cannot sound like my heroes/sheroes. I love – from my first moments experiencing jazz – that those considered as such sound just like their fingerprint – singular. Our place is unique and should be celebrated – the tension between this uniqueness and truly working together is but one binary of being we have to improve on to ensure future peace.
And finally, if given the opportunity, which planet or moon in our solar system would you visit and why?
I remember (when Jazz was shown on yes – British TV! – for a bit in the mid to late 80s) seeing a Chick Corea interview after a set at Montreux I think. In response to the idea that the interview would be put into a time capsule to be opened X years into the future …he said that if we were all still here then …( CC blows raspberry). And if we are living on some asteroid having destroyed earth then …(blows another raspberry)!
The planet I would like to visit – is the one we have yet to discover. It is home to a civilisation that has solved the questions that we have struggled with for far too long here!
That sounds like a planet humans need to discover Robert… !!!!
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. I feel in a much better place today for having just read all your thoughts on these subjects. Profound.
Robert Mitchell’s new album ‘A Vigil For Justice. A Vigil For Peace’ (DOF0001) is released on 15 Sept 2017 (digital).
The vinyl will also then be available from www.robertmitchellmusic.com and at selected stores. Pre-order NOW!
The album features Robert’s own poetry and music – and is produced by ECM artist Miles Bould.
The album launch will be on 15 Sept at the Vortex (London) with special guests.
Robert’s first poetry collection will be announced soon.
Robert currently tours with his bands Epiphany3 (new trio featuring Tom Mason and Saleem Raman), Panacea, solo and with Julien Lourau, Courtney Pine and Omar, Tom Harrison, Corey Mwamba, Omar Puente, Shirley Smart and Stagerlee Wonders. He is a Steinway Artist and a member of the British Labour Party, Momentum and Liberty.