Matt Mitchell’s name began popping up on jazz radar screens around three years ago. His sideman work is distinctive and strong on notable records like Tim Berne’s Snakeoil and Dave Douglas’ Be Still. In 2011, the New York Times named him one of “Four Young Pianists on the Rise in the Jazz Scene.”
It is therefore surprising that Mitchell’s debut as a leader is spectacularly unattractive. When Fiction opens with the hammering, amusical cycles of “Veins,” you feel like you are being beaten over the head with something narrow and hard. You hope that “Veins” is only a confrontational prologue, intentionally annoying to get your attention. It isn’t. The whole record is knotty, dense, obsessive, noisy, relentless and cold as mathematics.
The press notes (to which consumers will not have access) explain the origins of this project: Mitchell conceived the 15 pieces on Fiction as “etudes” for practicing, “little musical puzzles … to test the technical limits of his pianistic abilities.” He started using them on tour with Tim Berne to warm up. Ches Smith, Berne’s drummer, joined in. The two began to integrate improvisation into Mitchell’s notated “puzzles.”
This duo album is the outcome, and it is mechanically formidable. Mitchell and Smith improvise while negotiating huge intervallic leaps and hairpin turns within schizophrenic tempo shifts. There are counterpoint networks like mazes. Sometimes, like on “Singe,” Mitchell’s two hands live in separate worlds, harmonically and metrically. Mitchell has said that he wants “to play things that have not been played before.” He succeeds. One of many unique qualities of Fiction is how it juxtaposes Mitchell’s classical severity with Smith’s impulsive punk nastiness.
But it is rarely fun to listen to practice exercises, even when they are clever and challenging. This record never entirely transcends its origins. Fiction is easy to admire and hard to love.