Congratulations to you both on your newly, just released album Zeitgeist2! It’s lovely to chat with you about your new music, working together, influences, and plans going forwards.
Shirley, you worked with Robert for his composition ‘Invocation’, premiered at the London Jazz Festival in 2014 – it would be lovely to know how long you and Robert have been working together, and how you bumped into each other on the music scene?
Shirley – Yes, we actually met when Robert came to the end of a rehearsal for the Goldsmiths Big Strings, a string group led by a mutual friend of ours, and great jazz violinist Julian Ferrarretto. We got chatting afterwards about various things, and it sort of went from there! Robert asked me to help him with some of the string parts for Invocation – editing bowings, making sure things were playable etc.
What led you both to create this new piece of work?
Shirley – Mostly those conversations during the Invocation project, and a shared interest in improvisation in its widest sense. I think also very much a shared sense of loss perhaps, that the practice has declined in classical education – which both of us grew up with. In some ways, this album is a reflection on that, and a return to it with evry new perspectives on it.
Robert – This was to finally turn these extensive conversations into a musical reality!
Shirley was able to organise a performance at City University – yet another element in common – as she has a teaching post there and I was a student there from ’89-’93.
We have done a few shows there now. Having also had some wonderful experiences at Steinway Recording Studios near Grantham – it was fantastic to return there for this project. Owner and engineer/musician Spencer Cozens did a brilliant job of recording, mixing and mastering. And of course this was pre-pandemic and so it did lead to an enforced pre-mixing period once the recording was done and the world had to shut down. Over a year in fact! So listening back was an object lesson in having fresh ears to hear what was achieved.
The album was supposed to bring together different strands in each musician’s journey to explore and re-explore your pasts and present. With each of your different pasts and present, how was this achieved, and what your experience of the process?
Shirley – I suppose I’ve partly just answered that above, but in my case I guess my own approach and voice was largely developed in Jersualem through playing with a lot of musicians there. Some were jazz musicians, some were more in the field what would in the UK be called world music (regional traditions such as classical Arabic music, Algerian chaabi, Ottomanic repertoire and so forth), but they very much flowed into one another at that time.
Robert– It was only really after collating a list that it looked so eclectic! I think the range from the major triadic world of CPE Bach through to the freely improvised puts the range of styles in a fascinating context with each other. This was done by intuitively responding to the range of interests between us. And by treating each piece of music as ultimately belonging to an infinite family of music. I look to have different elements on each album I have been blessed to do. This is my 11th and a very young area of poetry narration was the natural candidate for inclusion! The poetry references the Windrush scandal and world peace (!) – which are big components in the choice of overall album title. Alongside the nature of the eclectic combination – mark this out as being influenced by this recent ‘spirit of the times’…
Both of you are professional jazz musicians, what is about working together in this medium that you love?
Shirley– I love this particular duo format of cello and piano because it is essentially such a classically conceived combination, but we are treating it as an improvised medium as well, so that’s quite different. I love exploring the range of sounds we can make with just the two instruments, and the chamber-music like intimacy of such a small group. Its also interesting playing with no drums, but finding way to bring percussive sounds and techniques into the performance – either stating or implying a groove, or just as a texture, but we have the fluidity to leave it and depart elsewhere very quickly so it can pass in and out of the performance rather than being a staple and constant presence.
Robert – the openess. The development of all the musical facets over a lifetime – and the fuel of improvisation. The lifeblood of improvisation connecting musical styles all over the planet (which needs to be reawakened more commonly in classical music/western art music). The under appreciated role of the cello in the history of this music. Seeing each generation bring their unique voices and experiences to the table. And seeing the elder generations continue to channel infinity and defy trends.
As jazz musicians, improvisation is a big part of your musicianship. What does improvisation mean to each of you?
Shirley –I find improvising such a fascinating concept, and also way(s) of making music. It can mean so many things – for some it immediately implies jazz, and although I love jazz, it is also only one form of improvising among many. I love the modal improvisation that underpins almost all Middle Eastern traditions, although there are many different local accents (and tuning systems!) in different areas, I think its fair to say that this is a commonality between them. I especially love the Arabic and Turkish maqams, or modes, as they use many microtonal pitches in the scales which are really rather beautiful.
Free improvisation fascinates me, and I do have a couple of projects that are very free, including a duo with tenor saxophonist/multireeds player James Arben which is completely freely improvised. Its so interesting because it really challenges how you hear, and listen as you play – there is no preplanned information, as, for example, a chord form like a jazz standard so you have to think and respond as you play. Obviously one draws sometimes on materials and concepts, or sounds that are in the memory bank of your musical life, but also suprises and new developments occur, and it is really totally unpredictable (if you’ve done it well!)
Even free improvisation to many means free jazz, which is a different thing (and lets maybe try and avoid the perpetual ‘what is jazz’ wormhole here!!!) and almost all improvisation has conventions within a certain context, and the ways that free improvisation can play with, or against those also I find fascinating. It depends on the day, and who you’re playing with!
Robert and I also introduced some totally free improv into our recent gigs, so this may definitely be something that you will hear more of from us!
I am also interested in the reasons why improvisation declined in classical education – because it is known that Bach could improvise a 4 part fugue, Mozart was a brilliant improviser etc (figured bass is effectively an 18th century lead-sheet after all, and function much the same way!), and while I think there is a renewed interest in it, I hope that it can become really a living thing again in that context rather than regarded as some kind of weird thing that you do if you have to! I do actually teach improvisation at the RCMJD, and its interesting how many students don’t understand for a while what I mean when they ask me ‘Miss, can we do theory, this is hard’ and I reply to them that ‘That’s exactly what you are doing….’!!!
And no-one could ever get bored playing jazz standards, so I’m not going to pit the different ways of living with improvised music against each other – its all good!
Robert – a window into several lifetimes worth of potential expression.
With improvisation you would say that it’s an on-going learning process, and do you feel you learn from each person that you play and work with?
Shirley– Definitely, yes!! I think it also depends what your path with it is. Some people prefer to stay within one relatively clearly defined field – straight ahead jazz or whatever, and I really admire people who do that incredibly well. I like the variety and balance of the projects that I am involved in, and I feel that they also afford attention to the different facets of my background, which I like – it keeps them all alive.
I think who one plays with is paramount in improvised music as well – because it depends on an unspoken form of interaction and trust, even though one obviously discusses concepts and ideas between performances. I’ve also learned to listen slightly differently from everyone I have played with and picked up new bits of sound to put into my own melting pot if that makes sense!
Robert – It is an expression of all experienced in life. Every day we change (like the clouds) and absolutely we learn from everyone in music.
Are there any particular musical artists or composers that have been key in influencing your musical creativity?
Shirley – I think the Israeli bassist Omer Avital is someone whose work I really love in the way he equally balances Middle Eastern traditional influences into what I don’t think anyone could deny is a jazz context (again, lets avoid the proverbial worm-hole here, but it is a conversation that one hears circulating sometimes about ‘world-music’, for want of a better term, and jazz and I think that balance of elements is a key factor).
Robert – I would have to keep that brief here! McCoy Tyner. Cecil Taylor. Geri Allen. George Russell. Federico Mompou. Sergei Rachmaninov. Django Bates. Conlon Nancarrow. Steve Coleman. Aka Moon. Oscar Peterson. Squarepusher. The Necks. Little Dragon. Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Keith Jarrett. Lili and Nadia Boulanger. And many more…
Both of you have classical training and both of you were frustrated with the lack of improvisation in it. Have you found this frustration also a source of inspiration? Is exploration key in your work?
Shirley– Yes, the frustration was definitely a source of inspiration! And I try to do something about that constructively through my teaching work at RCMJD. I have had progressively more improvisation students over the last years, and noticably more string players – which is great, so they will be escaping into the world armed with no more fears about improvising and the basis of the skills to develop it. (I hope!)
Robert – Yes. These are a big part of ongoing conversations. We need to see improvisation return to classical music – and in styles reflective of all the eras.
Our experiences in the CPE Bach Klavierstück alone illustrate why the improvisation and composing coming out of the Italian partimento oral tradition should be reintroduced. And practices from different eras. Cadenzas should be improvised. The Prelude from the famous pairing with the Fugue used to be improvised – so why not both. The creative challenge/summit should always feature in classical music- as you can seethere is a historic equivalence to the jam session in Jazz, the cypher and rap battle in Hip-Hop. Paganini’s story is partly made from his improvisational genius. Did you hear about the arranged challenge between J.S. Bach and organist Louis Marchand? I have talked about this recently – both during a gig and as part of a radio series interview (see below). It didn’t happen as Marchand fled upon hearing Bach from a hidden vantage point! The prize being beyond money – a regular position to provide music for particular functions for years and a reputation that has lasted centuries!!mSame goes for Handel and Scarlatti (I only recently heard this and loved both their styles during my earliest piano study). That one was a draw. But Beethoven (of course!) took Steibelts music – turned it upside down – and played that. Then improvised on it for over an hour – Steibelt leaving half way through this! He was mocking Steibelt through playing his music and showing its weakness. And we think rap/beatbox/dance battles on tiktok are new! So there is a whole side to classical music education, performance and historical study that I think is vital to re-awaken. It will absolutely lead to spectacular collaborations in the future. (A passport to world peace…well I can dream…)
Shirley, you spent many years in Jerusalem, where you also became involved with Middle Eastern regional traditions and its forms of improvisation. Do you believe there is a cultural or musical link between the Middle East and the Western world?
Shirley – Well, there is a theory put forward by the Arab music scholar Henry George Farmer that Arabic music and the Arab poet-musicians of the Islamic Empire were the basis for the poet-musicians known as the troubadours in the Middle Ages, which I think is fairly plausible, and the European lute is basically a development of the Arabic ud (is quite easy to see how al-ud became lute), so yes!! Also Jewish history I Europe dates back to the Middle Ages so I find it hard to not see them as linked and with many lines of influence. There are many cultural and musical differences as well, obviously – but certainly very deep connections.
Robert, how do you feel Shirley’s musical experiences and learning about Middle East music, broadened elements into your duo performances?
Robert – yes I feel the spirit of several regions there – through Shirley’s absorption of the ornamentation, phrasing and pacing of ideas (amongst all the great facets contributed from the cultures there). The spiritual weight and reverence for the geography that comes through is very strong and evocative. The lineage of instruments that precede the cello also reverberates deeply. I am going in a western direction here but I was reminded early on in duo with Shirley of my time in Morocco with Omar Puente (the legendary violinist from Cuba who I toured/recorded with in duo as well). We were on the same bill at a festival with a giant of the Oud. The arrival of this legend was something else… the loud operatic zaghrouta, or ululation from the ladies was defeaning. It was like a member of royalty or a prophet had arrived to take his place! The power and respect in the air just showed a mighty reverence to what a transcendent artist means in the region. Someone that uplifts and holds together the past and future of a community.
You are an acclaimed duo, going forwards, have you thought about expanding to collaborate this concept with new artists?
Shirley– Not yet, but we probably will!
Robert – A double concerto would be good! (With improvisation – that would be an important part of the commission!!)
Are there any plans to perform overseas?
Shirley – Not yet. Its taken long enough to get this album performing in the UK!
Robert – we would love to but (as I think you know why!) we have none at the moment.
Coming back to your newly released album Zeitgeist2, what do you have planned for 2022, where can people come and hear you?
Shirley– We just launched the album last week at the Vortex in London and we performed earlier this week at the lovely series run by NQ Jazz in Manchester, so we’ve just done a mini-run. Our next date is in Sheffield, but we’re working on getting some more in, so check the websites!
Robert– We will be in Sheffield at the Lescar on 8 June with a workshop tbc. More performances and workshops are being planned. Shirley is doing a lecture at the Guildhall School in March where I teach and I will be hosting this.
Shirley Smart – cello.
Robert Mitchell – piano, voice
This duo, and the resulting album developed out of conversations between Robert and Shirley whilst working on Robert’s Invocation project in 2014.
Their discussions explored the varied paths of their respective backgrounds, and different relationships of all aspects of those musical paths to improvisation. Both have a shared classical training, in which the absence of an improvisation became both a frustration and source of inspiration. Part of the story of this album lies in their different forms of searching for this lost aspect of the classical tradition, and also the journey of embracing it in other musical forms.
Robert is long established as one of the UKs finest jazz pianists and composers, and finds expression also through the medium of poetry to explore themes of his background. He also debuts here as a narrator of his own poetry, focussing on a response to the Windrush scandal and tribute to his mum and the search for global peace.
Shirley spent many years in the Middle East, where she also became involved with both jazz and Middle Eastern regional traditions and their forms of improvisation. Since returning to the UK, she has established a formidable reputation as one of the most versatile and creative cellists on the scene, drawing on her various influences as a root and basis for her work.
Both artists are also highly involved in music education. Shirley is Head of Performance at City University. Robert is Jazz Piano Professor at Guildhall School Of Music and Drama.
This album brings together these different strands in each musician’s journey, linked through the dialogic act of improvisation, to explore and re-explore their pasts and present.