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Matt Mitchell: Phalanx Ambassadors (Pi)

The pianist leads a quintet on his latest album

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Matt Mitchell, Phalanx Ambassadors
The cover of Phalanx Ambassadors by Matt Mitchell

Matt Mitchell’s vision is a model of wonky brilliance. The magnitude of his personal and artistic ambition has been stated clearly enough on previous Pi productions and through many other wildly unique associations, but recordings like this remind us that he’s always brewing something fresh. 

Leading a quintet through hyper-specific hinterlands, Mitchell revels in the act of creation. There’s a jostling camaraderie at play early on, as the eponymous ensemble navigates the first three slanted scenes—the knotty “stretch goal” and miniatures “taut pry” and “zoom romp”—with warped precision. Sophisticated, intense, and filled with information-dense thickets, the music has gravity that’s hard to escape.

Phalanx Ambassadors’ centerpiece—“phasic haze ramps,” constituting a solid third of the album’s 46 minutes—serves as the point of departure from an outpost that’s already fairly remote. The material that precedes it, idiosyncratic and asymmetric though it may be, is tightly coiled. This performance, in contrast, appears to be unwound and unbound through much of its existence. But various points of cohesion serve as trail markers, indicating a loosely and smartly outlined course. 

Clearing the brambles and the uncertainty away, the Ambassadors take a reflective turn with the absorbing “ssgg.” Then there’s a notable lean toward dynamism and danger with the parting tracks, “Be irreparable” and “mind aortal cicatrix.” While focused on collective chemistry, Mitchell’s work also frequently celebrates the individual. Guitarist Miles Okazaki, mallet percussionist Patricia Brennan, bassist Kim Cass, and drummer Kate Gentile proudly serve as interpreters, soloists, searchers, and rebels. Together and apart, with Mitchell leading the way, they prove devilishly profound.

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Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.