Mitchell’s command of avant-garde and mainstream piano vocabulary is impeccable.
Kevin Le Gendre 2011-09-02
While the prospect of yet another piano trio may not set every pulse in the jazz world racing, it should be made clear that this is first and foremost a record by three musicians with a lengthy shared history. Drummer Richard Spaven and double bassist Tom Mason have been playing in pianist Robert Mitchell’s Panacea ensemble for a decade and seven years, respectively, so theirs is a highly advanced cohesion. Yet the praise heaped upon the 3io’s first outing, 2010’s The Greater Good, was not solely down to technical ingenuity and sharp reflexes.
What Mitchell and company managed to do, certainly judging from stellar performances at the Vortex or the London Jazz Festival, was show how harmonically sophisticated ‘art’ music can embrace pop, as in catchy rhythmic hooks, backbeats and swooning melodies, without dumbing down. Being creative with a cover version is thus a logical strategy, and if Mitchell took Massive Attack’s Teardrop to a high emotional plane on the previous set then the successor here is the reprise of Aphex Twin’s Alberto Balsam. The charmingly maudlin quality of the original’s electronic whimpers and wails is conveyed by the discreet but resonant sprinklings of offbeat notes in the B section as well as the robust, tremulous quality of the drums and bass, both of which anchor a stark, solid pulse without rocking out too wildly.
The group has a tough, at times heavy sound, with a punch on the ‘one’ that betrays a real immersion in hip hop and loop-led culture; but their rhythmic backbone moves flexibly through either tempo changes or deft tonal details such as eye-of-the-needle cymbal work from Spaven and artfully stuttered single note lines from Mitchell that illustrate his command of avant-garde and mainstream piano vocabulary. Other inventive covers include 4hero’s Third Stream and Cycles, by the late South African pianist Bheki Mseleku, but the originals also stand up impressively. A Desperate Man sees the trio usher a rotund house groove into chamber music by way of whispering, fluttering tympani patterns while the title-track slides an off-kilter African rhythm under a pert, daringly spacious theme.