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Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Matt Mitchell - Illimitable (Obliquity Records, 2024) *****

By João Esteves da Silva

Both an intrepid spontaneous composer and someone capable of cutting through some of the most challenging predetermined material (including his own), Matt Mitchell has long established himself as one of the foremost creative pianists of our time. Illimitable marks his long-awaited return to the solo format and may well be his most impressive statement to date. In fact, I am convinced that this is one of greatest albums of spontaneously composed solo piano music... well, ever. While I can hardly begin to do justice to Mitchell’s achievement within the scope of this review, I can at least try to summarize what strikes me as so special about it.

When it comes to the art of solo piano spontaneous composition, Keith Jarrett and, more recently, Craig Taborn are inescapable references. Now, Mitchell achieves something I believe to be, on the whole, unprecedented: a sort of synthesis of the Jarrettian and Tabornian approaches, pushing the format a step further. On the one hand, like Jarrett in his earlier solo concerts, he is able to generate massive mutating constructions in real time and sustain them for exceedingly long periods. (The album’s longest piece lasts for over 40 minutes...) On the other, his own constructions exhibit an overarching focus and cohesiveness (both stylistic and structural) that one would normally associate only with the kind of more concise approach at which Taborn excels (namely in his masterpiece Avenging Angel ), while nonetheless retaining all their unpredictability and “in the moment” feel. And like Taborn, too, Mitchell proves himself a master of a wide variety of modern idioms (from Cecil to Feldman, he has it all in his arsenal), here distilled into a (scrupulously tasteful) language of his own.

Mitchell’s architectural approach is ideally served by his rock-solid pianism. A kind of Marc-André Hamelin of creative music, he plays as long a game as one could think of in these deep waters and is able to render the densest of textures with exceptional clarity throughout. (I’m here reminded of someone like Sorabji, with his penchant for both étude-like pieces and monumental proportions.) And while, overall, the evenness of the sound he produces - somewhat more granitic than, say, pearly or steely - impressed me more than his tonal palette, he does engage in alluring timbral explorations, such as in the second piece’s more spacious and impressionistic (or Scriabinesque) passages. His endurance, due to his technical facility and relaxation, is also second to none: just listen to the sustained intensity of the first piece and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

As a whole, this four-part double album is brilliantly conceived. Coming out with all guns blazing, the first piece (“illimitable”) is a straight knockout. The second one (“unwonted”) is an exhilarating journey, with wonderful variety, and the third (“abstruse admixtures”) falls somewhere in between its predecessors. At last, the fourth (“for Oona”) provides the necessary rest: a spellbinding 25-minute post-Feldmanesque meditation, one of the most cogently shaped spontaneous compositions of this sort I’ve ever heard (unique for its sense of pacing and use of dynamics) - so much so that one could easily imagine having it transcribed and performed at new music recitals.

Now, does it really matter that, as Mitchell emphasizes, “all this music is 100% improvised, one take, no edits”? While certain prejudices against the practice of spontaneous composition - so-called improvisation - prevail, I would say it matters in that it provides a striking example of how such practice can yield music with as much craft as that of predetermined composition, namely fully notated music. But, ultimately, all that matters is that Mitchell - in collaboration with sound engineer (and composer) Ryan Streber, and whoever tuned the Steinway grand heard on this recording - has created a masterpiece of twenty-first century solo piano music.