Why has Matt Mitchell become the go-to pianist for so many jazz artists on the fringe? His output provides the best answers, by highlighting a broad skill set and a paradoxical musical makeup that blends rigorous organization and free will in fluid proportions. Whether investigating Bird with Rudresh Mahanthappa, exploring biology through sound with Steve Coleman or engaging in oblique dialogue with Tim Berne, he always seems to fulfill and sidestep expectations.
A Pouting Grimace, Mitchell’s third release on the Pi imprint, magnifies those cornerstone qualities. The album’s 10 tracks find him alternately engaged with an impressive crew of likeminded renegades and serving up solo electronic interludes. In both instances he manages to push the envelope without driving listeners away.
When operating all by his lonesome, Mitchell values space and patience above all. That’s readily apparent on the album’s bookends: “Bulb Terminus,” a 71-second cavernous call from the deep beyond, and “Ooze Interim,” a freely floating ambient soundscape that lasts for more than five minutes. But when his weighty ensemble is firing, a restive quality pushes back against that patient behavior. “Plate Shapes,” for example, plays like a minimalist composition on acid and steroids, as Jon Irabagon’s sopranino delivers slanted motifs that seem to shift the ground beneath him. It’s artfully edgy yet controlled. Then there’s “Gluts,” where two trios slowly merge to create something quizzically beautiful; “Heft,” in which ominous thoughts take hold, twist and turn; and “Sick Fields,” an eerily existential limbo that tests the durability of thought fragments. A Pouting Grimace, much like its creator, is a brilliant mix of the orderly and the unorthodox.