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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Matt Mitchell – Oblong Aplomb (Out of Your Head Records, 2023)

By Troy Dostert

The 2013 release of Matt Mitchell’s leader debut, Fiction (Pi Recordings, 2013), announced the arrival of a daring new presence in avant-garde jazz: a pianist whose stunning technical facility could coexist with an infectious rhythmic sensibility, creating music that was demanding and sometimes even forbidding, but not to the point of inscrutability. To pursue his vision, Mitchell needed a sympathetic drummer, one capable of navigating Mitchell’s bizarrely knotty compositions while somehow finding the occasional groove, and on Fiction that was Ches Smith, beginning a partnership that would unfold fruitfully over the subsequent decade. Smith would appear on Mitchell’s A Pouting Grimace (Pi, 2017) and Mitchell would return the favor on Smith’s Path of Seven Colors (Pyroclastic, 2021). But Mitchell has always had a knack for finding supremely gifted and adventurous drummers: Dan Weiss was featured on Mitchell’s Vista Accumulation (Pi, 2015) and Kate Gentile was a pivotal contributor on both A Pouting Grimace and its follow-up, Phalanx Ambassadors (2019). Indeed, so successful was Mitchell’s partnership with Gentile that they released the formidable six-disc Snark Horse (Pi) in 2021, a stunningly prodigious collection of duo recordings. Given Mitchell’s fondness for percussionists, then, it is no surprise to see him continuing the piano-drums format on his latest double-disc effort, Oblong Aplomb, where he once again partners with Gentile (on disc one) and Smith (on disc two).

Like Fiction, Oblong Aplomb has the feel of a collection of etudes, wherein Mitchell works out his ideas in conversation with his partners with a relentless tenacity, each concept explored exhaustively before moving on to the next. One gets the sense that Mitchell is engaged in this activity as much for himself as for his listeners, to push himself as far as he can go. And it’s quite a journey, as Mitchell is in unparalleled form here. Fortunately, Gentile and Smith are every bit his equal, meeting his feints and parries with plenty of deft maneuverings of their own, not to mention matching his seemingly limitless stamina. “Slarm Biffle,” the highlight of the twelve pieces with Gentile, sees Mitchell in a fearsome showdown with the drummer, whose punchy assault keeps pace with Mitchell’s tireless interrogations for almost fourteen minutes, with an oblique rhythmic logic that somehow makes sense despite its bewildering permutations. Gentile brings an incessant energy and almost locomotive momentum to many of her twelve cuts, but her subtle nuances are impressive too, as on “Blinkered Hoopla,” where she seems perpetually in the process of both establishing and undermining the piece’s rhythmic center, or the subdued “Oneiric Argot,” where she chooses to let Mitchell’s pensive ruminations take center stage, limiting herself to supplying color and texture.

Smith is just as effective, perhaps a bit more restrained than Gentile, but with craftiness and imagination galore. “The Amused,” the first of the twelve pieces with Smith, is a remarkably complex investigation, with a variety of rhythmic detours, each of which the drummer somehow negotiates in perfect sync with the pianist. And on several tracks, like “Doleful” and “Numen,” Smith’s vibes (on the former) and glockenspiel (on the latter) allow brief respites for exploring less tumultuous terrain. Yet Smith has plenty of tricks up his sleeve as well, as on “Inveiglers,” where he adroitly keeps pace with Mitchell’s fleet upper-register runs while somehow making a bit of room for a fugitive funk beat to rear its head.

It is worth stressing that these are twenty-four well-wrought compositions, tightly constructed and with an impressive precision that rewards close listening. It isn’t unbridled freedom that is being celebrated here, but rather an uncompromising intensity of musicianship—and the perfect pairing of a demanding repertoire with those clearly best suited for playing it. While it is at times an arduous listen, and a lot of music to digest, it is a credit to Mitchell and his colleagues that they are continuing to find new ways to challenge both themselves and their listeners. 



Vernon Jackson said...

I've got to wonder: How many copies of something like this ever sell? 100? 50? 10?

Not that sales are a marker of anything other than sales.

Still, I've got to wonder!

Troy D said...

A valid question, I suppose...but is *this* the website where that kind of thing should trouble us?

Vernon Jackson said...


Matt Mitchell said...

Well, if you take into account that physical media sales are way way way down and continuing to drop across the board, I would venture to say that my albums do decently, at least as far as the ones that get reviewed on this site. A couple have gone into reprint, and the Snark Horse box set is sold out; a few digital copies remain, I think ;).

(Btw, Snark Horse is not duos - it is 6 discs of ensembles of sizes varying from trio to the full 10 piece Snark Horsekestra, with one short solo piano track and 16 electronic pieces. There actually aren’t any duo tracks on that album at all.)

Thank you as always for the review, Troy!

Claudio Vedovati said...

I don't like the charts, but this is the album I've been listening to the most in recent months. And you never stop listening to it. For its intensity and beauty.

Matt Mitchell said...

Thank you, Claudio.