Robert Mitchell: ‘Even with the freest of free jazz, the stuff that is good is never completely free’

Cecil Taylor was the inspiration for the British pianist's recent live album

Former Tomorrow’s Warriors, J-Life and Panacea pianist Robert Mitchell is a highly cerebral and learned fellow. When we spoke for this interview, for example, his discursive conversation ricocheted dizzyingly from 18th-century music schools in Italian port cities to Ken Livingstone to Mozart to Congolese pygmy work songs to Bill Evans to Manchester United and beyond.

Mitchell’s recent live album Rainbow Mountain/Can We Care largely comprises one extended solo improvisation. “I’ve long meant to do a live album and it was very special to do it in the Jazz Café”, he explains. “I have lots of good memories of there from Tomorrow’s Warriors in the 90s and my own first album launch [Voyager, 2001] and witnessing gigs there by McCoy Tyner and many more.

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“And the crowd was lovely. To feel their interest continuing as I played [made me] think ‘You all seem to be accepting and are OK to continue on this journey!’”

To create a long-form improvisation in front of an audience is an act of daring and ambition. “It’s a rite of passage”, smiles Mitchell. “You dive in but even with the freest of free jazz, the stuff that is good is never completely free. Even in the densest and most difficult free music there’s a language and there’s thought about what message you’re delivering and about form and structure.

“You’re on a journey that’s exciting and unpredictable and a challenge. You’re thinking ‘OK, this works, it deserves more exploration.’ Or, ‘Today my technical faculties are not carrying out this idea to the degree I want so I’m going to have to go home and work harder on the areas that emerged from that exploration!’ Or, ‘Have I lost my way? Am I putting too much pressure on making something happen? Am I developing it beyond what it needs?’

“So it’s a fascinating tussle you have conversing with your muses.”

Cecil Taylor ‘was a young, black, gay, avant-garde jazz musician developing a completely original language and you hear about other musicians playing with him and walking off the bandstand, people walking out of venues, him washing dishes to make a living and physical threats’

Mitchell takes great inspiration from the struggles and genius of Cecil Taylor, to whose memory the album is dedicated. “I did my thesis on him as an undergraduate at City University. His music is still deemed challenging so for him to develop it and execute it and get an international career speaks volumes. He was a young, black, gay, avant-garde jazz musician developing a completely original language and you hear about other musicians playing with him and walking off the bandstand, people walking out of venues, him washing dishes to make a living and physical threats. And he actually was assaulted at one point and had his wrist broken. 

“I always think, if something hasn’t been great for me, ‘Has what I’ve been through been as bad [as things] in Cecil Taylor’s life?’” 

By the time of his death in 2018, aged 89, Taylor was revered. “He outlived pretty much all his critics but his struggle was never completely [over]. I remember being at North Sea Jazz Festival [in 1999] with J-Life and Cecil received an award and did a solo set. And immediately he started playing people were walking out! And he’s just won an award! I was like, ‘Are you not going to give the guy a chance?’ Unbelievable.”

Mitchell has written deep-thinking liner notes for the album which include pertinent quotations from Albert Einstein, French philosopher Simone Weil and, by way of contrast, Brazilian football legend Ronaldinho. Mitchell is a football buff.

“To be the best in any sport there’s a massive intelligence involved. The true greats have an intense awareness, spatial intelligence, team intelligence, match time intelligence … You talk about weight in a football pass. How musical is that term! How is that different from weight of someone pressing a piano key in the right way, at the right time?

“Liverpool is my team but I’ve just seen a Netflix thing on [ex-Manchester United and Argentina player] Carlos Tevez and, my God, what a tough upbringing. It makes perfect sense that on the pitch you would not mess with him. There was a toughness in attitude. Where did that come from? What he had to fight through to do this. Just like what Cecil Taylor had to fight through to be on stage at the North Sea Jazz Festival.”

Mitchell himself is impressively serious about developing his art. “There are still plenty of things to work on, there’s always a new chord, scale or motif and lots to be inspired by. I was known for being in some bands that played involved music, even before Panacea, but now I love the idea of being as satisfied with something that involves very few elements as with something that is way more complex. This is album number 10 with more in the pipeline and I have no idea how it’s all going to develop going forwards!”

The first part of the album’s title, Rainbow Mountain, is named for a Peruvian mountain that is weirdly striped with vibrant colours. “On my train to the Jazz Café I’m meditating and trying to imagine myself playing to an audience that are into it. And there was a picture on Facebook of Rainbow Mountain that I had never seen.

“Climbing a mountain is an interesting metaphor anyway but then to see this incredible sight was a good hook mentally for me. Something to open the door, something I could use as a guide. The other thing was having as a safety net a solitary song, Can We Care, which I ended up doing at the end.”

Rainbow Mountain/Can We Care is available online, the CD release having been postponed because of current circumstances. “We’re working out the best scenario as we go. Every part of the system is trying to adjust so things take longer. Even the post’s hit and miss and I want to save the disappointment of CDs not reaching people. But with the digital it’s just about making sure things are online and ready to go.”

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