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Matt Mitchell: Slow Motion

The pianist-composer's music rewards patient, perceptive listening

Reacting to the hectic pace and shortened attention spans of the modern age, the Slow Movement has arisen across a wide swathe of disciplines to celebrate the merits of taking one’s time. In dining, it rejects fast food and opts for locally sourced, homemade meals enjoyed in the company of others; in cinema, long takes and minimal action are favored over explosive blockbuster pacing.

Pianist-composer Matt Mitchell, 40, doesn’t profess to be a proponent of the Slow Movement per se, but Vista Accumulation (Pi), his second release as a leader, could certainly be seen as sympathetic to its goals. His ambitious compositions sprawl out over two densely packed CDs, several of the tracks topping 15 minutes and only one clocking in under eight minutes (and just barely). Like the best examples of Slow art, the impact of Mitchell’s music is often a result of its luxuriating in time, from allowing his and his bandmates’ ideas to unspool at their own pace.

“Sometimes you can take things into little corners that you wouldn’t necessarily arrive at without allowing yourself that breathing room,” Mitchell agrees. “I don’t usually set out to write a long piece, but in general when I write I just indulge myself. I feel like any composer ultimately does that, at least the ones I like. They completely indulge even their most seemingly crazy tendencies-or especially those.”

Mitchell’s jazz education was undertaken simultaneously with a study of contemporary classical composers like Morton Feldman and Iannis Xenakis, resulting in a blend that he jokingly refers to as “a jazz front end with a creamy classical center.” Compared to some of the composers he admires, the pieces on Vista Accumulation are downright bite-sized: Feldman’s Second String Quartet lasts about six hours, while John Cage’s “As Slow as Possible” is currently 14 years into a 639-year performance at a church in Germany.

But it isn’t simply a sense of scale that Mitchell has gleaned from his avant-classical influences. His pieces combine the formal rigor and structural complexity of those composers with the dynamic sweep and improvisational acuity of his jazz inspirations, a long list of mold-breakers that includes Tim Berne, Cecil Taylor, Steve Coleman and Anthony Braxton. Throughout the new album, those concepts are held in a taut and electric tension that can be challenging but rewards the time spent to pierce its mysteries. The richness of the writing is only deepened by the playing of Mitchell’s perceptive quartet: Chris Speed (tenor saxophone and clarinet), Chris Tordini (bass) and Dan Weiss (drums).

“I feel free knowing that I can follow through on my indulgence as I’m writing because they’re going to be able to handle it,” Mitchell says of the quartet. “It becomes about recognizing which of my musical imaginings, as they occur in my head, would be interesting if they interacted with those guys. It can be hard to find a band that’s willing to not just play music that’s pretty involved but go the extra mile and throw themselves into it fully, and I think that’s what these guys have done.”

In addition to his quartet, Mitchell leads Normal Remarkable Persons, originally a quintet with Berne, trumpeter Herb Robertson, saxophonist Travis LaPlante and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. The ensemble expanded for a three-night residency at Brooklyn’s IBeam in early 2014 with the addition of drummers Ches Smith and Dan Weiss, who doubled on vibes and tablas, respectively, while Sorey added trombone to his arsenal. (Shane Endsley substituted for Robertson.) The band’s three hour-long sets were recorded, and Mitchell hopes to release the results in the near future. He also co-leads Snark Horse with his girlfriend, drummer Kate Gentile, with a revolving membership including saxophonist Jon Irabagon, guitarist Ava Mendoza, trombonist Ben Gerstein and bassist Kim Cass.

As a sideman, Mitchell can be found in several of the most inventive and invigorating ensembles in modern jazz. He’s featured on new releases by Weiss and saxophonist Darius Jones and is a member of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls, John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble and the latest incarnation of the Dave Douglas Quintet. That last band is the most surprising; while Douglas is no stranger to adventurous experimentation, his music for the quintet has focused on his more lyrical side. Inspired by the loss of his mother and brother, the trumpeter has explored folk and spiritual melodies.

“It took me a while to figure out how to be myself in that band,” Mitchell admits. “Not just to be myself, but to be myself in such a way that’s fair to the music or everyone else in the band. We can go from a tune that’s descended from Filles de Kilimanjaro and then pull back into the spiritual thing. For me, the biggest challenge is how to play over something that’s church-y or gospel-y, and not do it in a Keith Jarrett way.”

Mitchell cites Jarrett, especially the pianist’s American Quartet, as one of his touchstones. “I had to work him out of my system for a long time,” he says. While he had to put Jarrett’s recordings on the shelf, he’s had no shortage of musical input. He grew up in Exton, Pa., listening to his parents’ rock records. While in high school he attended the Eastman School of Music’s summer jazz camp, where his neighbor in the dorms was Jason Moran. Mitchell went on to study at Indiana University and at Eastman, moving to Philadelphia in 1999 after a single year in New York City, during which he landed an incongruous job playing on a dinner cruise ship. Mitchell remained in Philly as his career took off, only recently moving back to NYC.

In the length of its pieces if not its density of ideas, Vista Accumulation stands in stark contrast to Mitchell’s 2013 debut, Fiction. That album’s 15 pieces were written as etudes, each one setting the pianist a specific challenge in his daily practice, then reimagined as duet pieces for Mitchell and drummer/vibraphonist Ches Smith. When we spoke about that album at the time of its release, Mitchell referred to the music as “napalm nuggets of psychotic-ness,” acknowledging the daunting complexity of these relative miniatures. But he’s quick to dismiss the oft-professed attitude that intellect and feeling are mutually exclusive.

“The notion that music that’s complex on a certain musical or technical level is therefore not emotional is accepted by a lot of people, but I fundamentally don’t understand why that’s the case,” he says. “Music that’s complex always elicits an emotional reaction in me-all music does. To me, Feldman is incredibly emotional music, it’s just that the emotions are not so obvious. I think that’s why music and poetry exist, to describe those things.”

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Originally Published

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.