On 28th May Robert Mitchell turns 50 and to mark the year, he will be celebrating with a special event at Ronnie Scott’s, London, on 7th August 2021.
Throughout the evening Robert will present two shows, each with a different band and special guests. The ensembles not only represent the bands that have been Robert’s primary focus (apart from his solo piano performance) in recent years – Epiphany 3 and True Think, but also are a multi-generational, multi-cultural musical reflection of Robert Mitchell’s musical journey so far.
Congrats on your 50th birthday year! What initially drew you to performing and writing music?
It has been a long journey! I started at 6 years old having been blessed with an amazing close proximity to music from the start. It was heavily in the family with my father (a tenor singer) performing, organising Carribean variety shows, having pianists regularly round to rehearse, and going to have local lessons. And by local I mean a minute away from home. This was eventually where I went to begin the study of music – in lessons from the brilliant Milada Robertson. This meant the classical piano grades and theory with her for 12 years. An amazing house so full of music and study – its image is still very strong for me.
Writing music was not until maybe 10 years later. Although I played piano at infant school (does that exist any more?) and then secondary school – it was a music competition at my secondary (Forest) that for some reason pushed me to finish the first thing I wrote and performed in front of the whole school. It is the same thing years later when being blessed with the opportunities to write commissions… a deadline and a contract! I didn’t fully realise it at the time (as I didn’t write again for years) but I had first tasted the completion of the path from writing to performing. It went very deep and only when committing to my own composing in my late 20s (after coming across some of my father’s songs) did I pick it up again and continue til now! A box was ticked in that first completion process that I didn’t realise had shown a glimpse of the life affirming beauty of realising a composition through to performance….but since then also via the magic a band of committed brilliant artists can inject into a song.
The join between these two areas I believe was getting into Jazz (as I grew to want more instrumental improvisation in any music! The late 80s/early 90s was the last time an instrumentalist could get high in the charts with a hit from a film was in the charts). The media exposure at that time for the generation that changed a huge amount here – Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson, Jason Rebello etc was of course very inspirational. And the home computing and music technology that allowed more people to sketch and hear back ideas (and get closer to any dreams of a band that were years away!). For me that was the Casio VL tone (I still have it!), Casio RZ-1, Roland PR 100, Sinclair ZX81, Commodore 64. A magical era (we are still feeling the effects of).
Who and what have been your main influences throughout your musical life?
What are your stand out career experiences which will always stay with you?
Poetry has often featured in your musical compositional work. What is important to you about poetry? and how have you chosen to feature poetry in your musical creativity?
Expression is expression! I love the fact that Ornette took up violin and trumpet later on and they became integral to his vision. I remember later on seeing a gig of Meshell Ndegeocello at the Jazz Cafe years later. She kept saying ‘stay open’. So – I have tried to!
I wrote songs for a long while and aimed for lyrics with poetic intent. It has emerged very gradually and is inspired by the beautiful rise of poems/spoken word in culture over several generations and ongoing incendiary world events. I have hugely enjoyed committing more to poetic expression.
I am working on a setting of a brilliant poem by Marvin Thompson – who won the recent Poetry Society competition (and had been an amazing supporter of my music for a long while too). And recently I had a premier of another setting of a fantastic poem by Fathima Zahra for a London Sinfonietta commission premiered last month. And soon I will be studying the work of the legendary Shake Keane (alongside Cecil Taylor I think as one of the best examples of a great musician equalling these achievements in poetry). This only helps to inspire yet more in this area for me.
Ronnie Scott’s are celebrating your birthday with you this August 7th with two special shows on the same night. The first being a performance by your piano trio – Epiphany 3: why did you choose that particular composition to feature?
This is the first of the two groups central to my group based activity for more than the last five years now. It is both a celebration – and also a barometer of the now for me.
You have a strong synergy with your trio, how is that connection important to you in creativity and performance?
It is a part of the dna in creativity and performance for me. The synergy is built on years of playing together – 20 with the great Tom Mason alone… with a view to consistently challenging each other. Whenever we meet – there is more. So the foundations get deeper and the stratosphere we aim for gets higher. Saleem Raman I have known for more than a decade having met at the Effra jam sessions in Brixton. I had been aware of the range of his great work for a good while and love these approaches appearing in the music.
For the second show you are performing with the fantastic band “True Think” – it is a true blend of genres and influences, so how did that ensemble come about?
Organically! I already had a few tunes written a few tunes that overlapped the end of a period doing the last trio album and ep.
These tunes had no home! (And markedly wanted electric expression – not acoustic as much). A few years previous I had also got to meet Zayn Mohammed. A brilliant multi-instrumentalist straddling numerous cultures. Deborah Jordan (incredible vocalist of Panacea) introduced us and he had been playing a tune of mine while he studying at Berklee in their jam sessions years before! I had also not worked regularly with guitar in far too long so thought this would be a great opportunity. Together with the amazing Sharlene Monique – and building upon the trio synergy – while adding in a more electric/electronic approach to get back to song writing – that’s the aim. Sharlene sadly had to leave so I asked the great Alice Zawadzki – who like everyone has a great range and experience across genres and like Tom plays violin! So now its keys, bass/keys, vocals/violin, guitar/perc, drums – with so many permutations I have yet to explore…
Are there any other surprise guests planned for your Ronnie Scott’s shows?
Yes – but this is also recently changed! Sadly the legendary Eugene Skeef now can’t make it so – the great cellist Shirley Smart will be the guest with trio Epiphany3. We first worked together for my large scale work Invocation in 2013/14. We will have advance copies of our debut duo album available at this show. So – yet more incentive to come down and check out this gig! This is also a debut in this format too (and there is even two tunes and some poetry getting their first performance in front of a live audience…). The guest with True Think is the trumpet phenom Yélfris Valdez. It has been far too long since we last played but I met him as band members performing with Dayme Arocena and then Billy Harper (both epic gigs). Another musical blessing from Cuba who has changed the musical landscape here in a few short years.
As a professor of Jazz Piano at Guildhall, how do you feel about the importance of music education?
It is a huge privilege to be asked to join the department and the first year has flown. I remember accompanying my father singing in his Barbican foyer type shows in the late 80s and walking past both imposing buildings as a teenager. I had no idea I would get to perform, study and then teach in them later on!
Music education is absolutely a vital part of a balanced curriculum. It has been under attack since the 80s (and we know who has been the dominant government for the last century in the UK let alone the last 40 years). It doesn’t need a pandemic to understand the link between music education, appreciation and excellence in creativity and the mental health of a society. It is the glue that keeps us together in sound form. Wherever it is cut – we lose parts of our creative future. A society that doesn’t value creativity better brace itself for a very difficult future… or no future at all. We should be at the stage where we see eminent creators involved in leadership in all spheres. And yes absolutely directly in politics (as not only ministers for culture). It has of course proven lucrative to the UK. Instead of a display of the importance of the arts during this covid crisis – we have had a poor amount of help during this period and no proper plans to allow musicians to continue to work in the EU post Brexit. So the suffering has increased in speed and intensity – and will get worse.
Music education needs to be way more highly valued and every student should be coming out of school with a basic level of music literacy – with inspired ears to create, a heart full of stories to share and eyes to read and appreciate the craft of the written note too. I would zone in on the core value of improvisation and being in close proximity to the creativity lying inside everyone. We tell daydreamers abruptly to get their act together. Well turn off all media for 18 months…. This would be the effect of banishing dreams made real via art. Ironically – maybe more self made creativity would occur just from the need to fill the huge gap….
Do you feel there is equal access to education, or that there are things that need to develop or change?
Not even close. Instead of watching billionaires send themselves and a few friends into space… they should pay the tax that their companies owe and send laptops to all the children in need. That this disparity is true for the UK is ridiculous – as its the 6th biggest world economy. There are tremendous life changing opportunities for education online. So much of it is free. But you have to have access to the internet first – and a good strong connection if possible to enjoy the information without bad reception interference and slowness.
How do you feel music education relates to the music syllabi that students are encouraged to study?
They are not as in sync as they could be. There should be a better balance of recent innovations and contributions alongside not only a famous cannon of work – but history also needs to be looked at with a broad ear…. There are too many amazing names who got ignored in the past due to their race and gender being at odds with the prevailing ways of selection for syllabi. This needs to be updated on a yearly basis. Culture and technology evolves daily. Our ideas about ourselves need to become broader and properly representative – as it is not up to date. So much innovation in music and art – are often about society not being ready and deliberately being held back by outdated separatist ideas.
Do you feel the syllabi presented by educational bodies is representative of our true UK jazz scene, or that there are fundamental changes and improvements that need to be made?
I feel there needs to be much more inclusion and it is not yet representative of the hugely vibrant UK Jazz scenes. We need to badly update several syllabi. I did not study Jazz and improvisation in an institution (the very opposite of my classical studies). My experience of both coupled with touring travel has allowed me to hear for myself – there is a tremendous amount of talent everywhere (whether signalled by graded exam results or not). When I have come to refer to recent syllabi for teaching – there is change from when I started in the 70s – but it is too slow. We have had legendary contributors to Jazz in the UK from a variety of cultures going back a century. We have 300 plus cultures in London alone. We have a changing demographic and those with an African and Asian heritage will make up a larger part of the UK and the US. We cannot separate the make up of an educational syllabus from this – especially as the rapid changes in communication technology mean that these discrepancies are being discussed in more detail and in real time. In a wider sense – It is untenable to say that a world of music is being offered to the world in a syllabus format – when for example not a single Barbadian (Bajan) composer has featured in the ABRSM from the inception of exams there in 1907 until now. A composer never only ever looked like the image of Bach. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor sat in a classroom at the Royal College Of Music with Gustav Holst. Winifred Attwell sold 20million records playing the piano and being a TV star in the UK at a time no other black entertainers were anywhere near this. Hazel Scott had her hands insured by Lloyds in London (hugely ironic given their history and involvement with the slave trade).
I knew none of this and their musical achievements growing up – future generations are closer to this knowledge thanks to the internet. And thanks to conversations about this deliberate oversights getting louder. But a printed syllabus needs to reflect talents that have been ignored, proven greats and a proportion reflecting the widest range of contemporary creativity. The rate of change is still far behind where we are as a society. And further behind compared where we are going….
How did the lockdowns and Covid restrictions affect your students – how did you adapt to life online and what did you feel the young people involved took away from this experience?
We have had to do lessons online. It Is not ideal for everybody and this is absolutely understandable.This is at the same time as a learning curve for teachers to grapple with the communication tech and to make lessons enjoyable while not in the same room!
Not easy – we have all had to rethink and adapt – and it is not for everyone. I loved the challenge and am a fan of tech (some of the stuff my generation grew up dreaming about – we carry now in our pockets!). But having no comparable experience learning music online when I was the age of the students I teach…we are all having to create options and bridge the gap. This is easier for some instruments than others and synchronising rhythm so we can play together over the internet is still a little way off. I remember vaguely the excitement when MIDI rapidly travelled round the world and was covered by all the magazines of that era. We need the no-latency over the internet sync standard – now!! But I must also mention that – some students have also thrived!
Do you think the relationship between music and expression has become more widely relevant in the last year?
I think for a wider section of the community – yes. And not before time….We too often only realise how much we take this for granted – when a challenge like Covid has stopped or slowed so much on the planet. We have to do better and really show the arts that we care and that it deserves much better support than at present. Creativity is being squeezed out of school – and the music syllabi and the whole curriculum need to be expansive to help arm young generations for several immense challenges ahead in this century. Music has helped many a culture though slavery, genocide and disaster both man made and not.
If we willingly remove our future chances of continuing humanity’s creative artistic genius.. I do believe it will affect our chances of survival. It is at our core. Fighting for it to flourish and be available to be enjoyed for the widest possible range of people is the least we can do. We are born creative and wanting to explore. Is it a surprise that so much hatred, racism, mysogyny, homophobia and prejudice can continue in a society being deliberately starved of the importance of art? We have to do better and keep this beauty of the universe expressing itself – as close as our next breath. We have to do better or there is no we…