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Over 30+ years entrenched in the art of music, Robert Mitchell has released twelve albums of his own projects, participated in over 100 projects as a sideman and has performed in more than 40 countries. A festival creator and curator as well as a highly respected educator, conferred Professor of Jazz Piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Mitchell has also published poetry books. His latest collaborations include new improv trio The Flame with Mark Sanders and Neil Charles, a duo with cellist and Head Of Performance at City, University of London – Shirley Smart, Orphy Robinson, Courtney Pine, Ashley Henry and soon Josephine Davies. Robert Mitchell served as Musical Director for a revival/celebration of the BBC programme Jazz 625 – broadcast live from Cheltenham Jazz Festival. He led the house band, featuring special guests incl. Gregory Porter or Joshua Redman and Charlie Watts. The show received the Broadcast Award for best musical programme. He was part of the radio series Jazz Meets Classical, broadcast in early 2022 on both Jazz FM and Scala Radio. Over the years he has worked with with Billy Harper, Greg Osby, Alicia Olatuja, Steve Coleman, Phil Ranelin, Omar Puente, Ernesto Simpson, Dayme Arocena, Jason Rebello, Shirley Smart, Basement Jaxx, Dub Colossus, Daniel Casimir, Joshua Redman, Jacqui Dankworth MBE, and many others. He leads the bands Epiphany3, Panacea, and True Think. He had works performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, the Emulsion Sinfonietta and the London Sinfonietta, amongst others. Robert is proud to have been a Steinway Artist since 2009 and has completed his third commission for the London Sinfonietta project Changing Standards (premiered Nov 2022).
Hi Robert, fantastic catching up with you! Congratulations in all you’re doing, especially your new double album ‘Hold The Light / The New Resistance’! This is your 12th album and the first one for your latest group – True Think.
Tell us more about the album – how did it come about, and was it initially planned to have two albums?
Great to be here! It came about very gradually – I had not written songs in a while (after several instrumental albums, including one with narrated poetry – but no singing). I started to want to integrate electronics and put more use of a collection of keyboards here (finally!!). We are talking four years ago – hard to believe…. but the plan emerged as I got momentum with connecting the above elements with making up for lost song time. Working with many amazing vocalists during and before this time was the other piece of the puzzle… and this time round it could be achieved by home or studio recording local to the vocalist. In this case for Laura Perrudin in Paris, Alicia Olatuja and Becca Stevens in New York, and narrator Masumi Endo in Fukuoka – it was vital to make this work with a very busy collection of brilliant people. The plan was definitely not to do two albums!
As all went into the pandemic – like for everyone – time did strange things! On one hand very much feeling like time was standing still – on the other with this album – actually accumulating quite a lot of growth! I contacted a few more vocalists as I could see a theme of the ‘best voices I know/have worked with’ coming through strongly. I did want to honour completing the lot together as the statement displays a lot of the shifting ground during this crazy period… and to make up for lost time in the land of song….
It would be great to learn more about the meaning of the album titles; are these two albums linked in any way?
Yes. Hold The Light – is keeping your magic, your dreams, your intuition – alive, engaged, ambitious, without limit – however that is defined – and as a strong force. In order to do that – it feels like the need again for The New Resistance – as protection is needed when every day it feels like our right to dream (and express that in free speech/plan/action) is lessening. So the both are working towards one aim – building a better tomorrow from within – resisting the pull of all designed to lessen us. And with a cast like this from all over the place – a wide expression of a human family – not stopped by borders, language or pandemic. As all arts forms ultimately have to and will find a way to keep nourishing – and strongly I believe….
You mentioned that you started working on the album before the pandemic hit us all; what challenges did you face when the music industry switched to the online world?
Like all working in these areas – the cessation of performing live. I did a few online performances – and was able to combine a presentation for the solo ones I did which I enjoyed hugely (but in a different way). I have been very lucky to have been teaching at the Guildhall School and Leeds Conservatoire. And I also was benefitted by commissions from Jazz South and The London Sinfonietta. The challenges around being motivated was really helped by having this album project continually develop – as it was not as dependant on getting into a studio altogether. When it is this electronic we have the opposite problem to a live-only project – anything taking a decent amount of time will be reminded of that often – with each new upgrade, free sample, trial periods (which get longer to tempt you in to buying!). So the deadline has to be firmly set and adhered to (and now I can do a full OS upgrade that I had to hold off – in order not to upset any of the compatibility between so many part of a project totalling more than 100GB). So any time I was feeling the weight of stillness – that was weighing so heavily with all the having to stay home restrictions – listening to this project grow and including a dream cast – always helped. It felt like it was pushing me to go further – so I listened!
The pandemic has made the music world more complicated; but, it has also given us the opportunity to collaborate with artists all around the world. Has the pandemic brought you any further opportunities?
To be able to teach at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and Leeds Conservatoire. Both huge honours for me. I was also conferred as a professor earlier this year. To see future generations of talent unfolding is extremely exciting. I also have done some work for the Guildhall EDI and Black Lives In Music (led by Roger Wilson). Very important conversations are still needed to help real inclusion become fact and not simply talk. My connection with the Guildhall goes back decades (as a student – getting instrumental lessons as part of my City Uni degree).
So the picture of what has and what still needs change is felt very deeply for me. I must also thank Yuki Negishi – a great classical pianist with expansive interests – for playing my second LS commission (a left hand only work) – which has been featured on her debut album (and will be played in Japan later this year!). And Julien Lourau for featuring some of my music in his education work at Pole Sup in Paris (which I will visit to do workshops next year). Performing online has been – different! I love the technology – but of course it became a real test as Zoom overload kicked in!!! The reliance on the tech has become scary. But with album guests recording their parts in the US, France, Japan, Sweden and some poetry recorded Urdu, Swedish, Zulu, Japanese – I have definitely been feeling the actuality of the planet getting smaller and closer in powerful collective possibility. I hope these lessons continue to be learnt once this pandemic is truly history (….which is not yet…)
This isn’t the first time you’ve included poetry into your work, and we love it! What do you enjoy most about poetry, and what do you feel music and poetry have in common?
The transformational power of asking questions about our human condition – within each format (and especially together).
With poetry – the heightening of the language we use every day (or not!). The idea that a small volume of extraordinary work – say for instance by Ocean Vuong – could leave powerful imagery with you for a long time after reading.
They can use each other to describe themselves… because there is poetry and music in everything if you observe deeply…
As we know songs are a way to convey emotions/messages not only through music but also through language, and we know music has the power to convey emotion and meaning without language, but as an instrumentalist what leads you choose to add poetry, does it enable a more powerful or more specific message for you?
Yes. I am influenced early on by my father who used to write songs. I remember the power of seeing titles like ‘Song without words’ in my early classical music studies and trying to write those words! I also think it is a shame that not more instrumentalists have a go at writing songs (whether you have a great voice or not!) – to really help shape phrasing and ideas at all kinds of organisational level in the music created. So this position is the result of many influences – long before I started to compose….
Tell us more about your group ‘True Think’, what does the band’s name mean and how it all came together.
I get to write the three part mantra that came to me when the band name arrived! It is funny how little the emphasis changes when you say it Truth Ink – write your truth. Truth Inc. – embody your truth True Think – become your truth. It is a search for truth from any direction you choose – but just important to do it and have an anchor in these times of such rapid, violent change. The group came together over the last few years – and it forms a fascinating construct. Bassist/keys player Tom Mason I have worked with for over 20 years…
Drummer/percussionist Saleem I had known for nearly as long and had been working with now for about 7 years within trio Epiphany3. Guitarist/Oud player multi-instrumentalist Zayn Mohammed I was introduced to by Deborah Jordan a few years ago – but had known of my music since his time at Berklee! (Another tune from my second album had been doing the rounds at jam sessions within the faculty within group of friends Zayn was a part of – so the music had somehow led to this eventuality). And after working briefly with the fantastic Sharlene-Monique and Alice Zawadzki (both featured on the album) – Liselotte Östblom joined the group this year. An amazing talent from Sweden who I had actually met briefly at the Royal Academy a few years ago doing a solo presentation of some of my music. It is a multi faceted group – Lis recorded poetry, and uses effects pedal on recording and live (as an electronics/looping aficionado herself!). It is fantastic to get Tom onto the synth bass and keyboard side as well for this project. Zayn play a large array of instruments so the album is only a small window into his wondrous range. And Saleem is bringing a large genre sensibility – which is expressed on the kit, percussion and triggers/pads as well. The music and feeling has grown exponentially both live and for this double album. We are so looking forward to present it live and launch this album (which is my 12th).
You’re working, as ever, with outstanding musicians, we love your band lineup [Robert Mitchell, Liselotte Ostblom, Zayn Mohammed, Tom Mason, Saleem Raman] (drumkit, electric bass, electric and acoustic guitars, oud, vocals, vocal effects, keyboard, synths). It’s an incredible and exciting setup, especially introducing one of the oldest stringed instruments, the Oud, alongside effects and synths. What led you to explore and work with this broad and textural line up?
It is simply a reflection of the amazing creative people that I have worked with over several decades. Some like Deborah Jordan I have known was world class from since my student days when we met. Others have been more recent meeting like Liselotte Östblom and Tori Handsley. I have searched out very few from this whole project – so it is my thinking as broadly as I can to take a deep reflection of some many events and feelings over the last few years. Both personally and in general. We are extremely proud to have some family representation in this one – from our daughter Alice – who did such a brilliant job (aged 8 when recorded). It is a reflection of my connections through the incredible talents all around us – and widely and deeply as I could at this point!
‘True Think’s’ music is described as a multi-generational, multi-cultural reflection of several periods of your own musical journey. Tell us more about your musical journey and about the times that best reflect you and your musical work? And what do you feel is important about multigenerational influences in music?
Answering both together – the multigenerational view keeps one of the binds that is so important for us all. Too often we are being put at odds in society here… where as in older communities and tribes there is the highest of respect for our elders. We ignore their hard won wisdom – and the chances of our peril rise. This is the lens I also see some of the more important times in my journey – I first learned piano with Milada Roberton who continued to work into her 90s. I had Omar Puente and Roberto Bellatella on my first album in 2001. And have worked again with Eugene Skeef for this recording (after an earlier appearance on my second album in 2005). The Tomorrows Warriors worked intergenerationallly.
Working with the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus – showcased folk who had been in the choir for more than 30yrs. There is a more than 60 year time span within the cast on this project. And True Think also reflect a near 20 year time span! And the teaching mentioned before – means we are all moving through and benefitting from the ever changing perspective on all of this supreme creative potential – doing our best to realise it in any way possible. This multiplicity of perspective is vital for community – and working through problems within the art – and absolutely within life.
Your sound blends many areas across electronic, jazz, RnB, spoken word, film and folk music, creating an incredible and unique sound! What musical journey has led you to explore particular genres, and does experimenting and improvising always play a key part?
It is a journey through the music that has left its mark on me all along. It is albums, films, radio, vinyl, ads, downloads, minidiscs, cassette tapes, gigs of all sorts. It is friendships created by meeting people at events, shops, jam sessions gigs, lessons… and the ways in which these mix and all come out in different combinations… In terms of experimenting/improvising….
Well I remember (being of that generation) – recreating the music from Jaws on the low end of the piano! But really wanting to feel the power of the imagery that could be thrown onto a listeners inner imagination upon hearing other sounds from the deep. And then what happens to that picture at the very top end of the piano etc. So it began from there – to be put away for a while – as the work of getting to grips with the incredible instrument that is the piano – took over. But its spirit – and maybe the awakening of the composer in me per se – was in my mid teens. And this had been accompanied by the images of Herbie Hancock surrounded by keyboards! Joe Zawinul surrounded by keyboards!
And the same for George Duke, Vangelis, Stevie Wonder, Harold Faltermeyer, Howard Jones, Lyle Mays, Bobby Lyle, Patrice Rushen, Jan Hammer, Rick Wakeman etc and seeing the myriad of ways these legends could all jump to from the very same keyboard. So I had to put these long held keyboard and synth dreams to use at some point! And in the service of questions I feel are very important – why is our empathy being drained away (Can We Care), not wasting potential and watching the distractions from it (In The Air), actually working to transmute the powerful inspiration from our legends (Best Of Us), and to underline that we have not reached a place of wonder for us all (I believe … in the song Better Time, Better Place).
Coming back to your live dates around the UK, where can people come and hear True Think, and what do you have planned ahead?
Can I answer by sharing a tour poster (for Part1) see below… (had to be done!)
Can I also mention that the legendary Carleen Anderson is featuring a version of the song she sings on the album – Better Time, Better Place – in her upcoming opera Melior!! It debuts at the Hall For Cornwall on 6 November (again – an absolute honour… it was worth the wait to record it – and I could not believe it when she then asked me!). Please try and catch this important work.
Thank you Emily. And for all the amazing work you are doing on this fantastic site. It is brilliant to see it grow into this fantastic resource now!!