Robert Mitchell in conversation with Kate Romano
Robert Mitchell, the revered jazz pianist, Steinway artist, composer and poet, is describing his working ethos to me. He refers to a short recording of postal workers cancelling stamps in Ghana; a field recording made in 1975 by ethnomusicologist James Koetting. It's a superb example of the close connection between work and music-making as the Ghanaian postal workers whistle a traditional hymn over the rhythm of their stamping. The act of inking the stamper provides a powerful bass, the beating of the stamper on to the letters to cancel the stamps produces a higher pitched sound and the whistling emerges over the rhythmic patterns. (A further filmed example can be seen here)
'It’s a blurring of work and music’ says Mitchell. ‘It shows people who are so at ease with what they do that they no longer have to think about it. The work is no longer merely work, and the song becomes a chance to make the hours fly past. For me, this idea of people being deeply connected and doing things together is really important. There is no substitute for the human value of developing something over a long period of time, and the idea of being connected to other people is at the heart of all I do’.
Mitchell grew up in Essex in a musical family. His father was a professional singer who ‘sung all the time.. lighter classical music, spirituals, Gershwin, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Harry Belafonte.. I heard all this live music in my house, played on the piano that I was learning on. There were always pianists coming to the house, and when someone way ahead of you is making the instrument you play sound that good, it's a big motivator. I would think.. how do they do that? I can’t do that!’
Mitchell had piano lessons from the age of 6 with Milada Robertson (‘a great first piano teacher’) for 12 years. ‘She had a sort of ‘piano factory’' he recalls. ‘A big house with five pianos, and she would run lessons in the same room where other kids were doing theory at a large table so you always had someone listening to you play. We had to do concerts from a young age.. all-day affairs, where you play to everyone else's parents. I recall a girl before me crying at the piano after she had played something badly and I thought, ‘I must never do that’ - the stopping and the crying, that is. The idea of keeping going whatever happens was instilled at a very young age’.
For a time, his classical and jazz worlds were quite separate. Mitchell discovered soul, RnB, hip-hop and other new waves of culture (New Romantic, punk, various styles of American Black music) via radio and television. ‘I had a growing awareness of how young people in the 70s and 80s expressed themselves’ he says. ‘Song, dance, dress, language, the places where you would meet…‘. Cinema was also a big influence (‘those magnificent big themes.. Raiders, Star Trek, Enter the Dragon… you don’t even need to watch the films to know that something incredible is happening…’) He discovered jazz around the age of 17 after hearing Oscar Peterson on Capital Radio late one night, which he describes as ‘a lightbulb moment; my ears were ready’, swiftly followed by ‘more lightbulbs.. Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Stanley Cowell, David Benoit, Django Bates, Keith Tippett, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Keith Jarrett and more..'.
True Think is Mitchell’s latest musical project, and the catalyst came from a more personal place. ‘I came across some of my Dad’s songs.. things he’d written. There’s something very powerful about seeing creativity in the hands of your siblings, your parents or family members with no other purpose than a need to express what is in your head, a need to put your story on paper’. The band’s debut double album (Hold The Light/The New Resistance) has been applauded for being ‘innovative.. expressive.. socially-conscious.. an explicit statement on the state of the world and the pressing need for change’. It weaves together elements of hip-hop, jazz, spoken word and folk music; smooth, punchy, lyrical and hard-hitting songs of protest, love and peace. With the use of electronics the sound of the band is powerfully expanded. ‘I love the idea of a large sound generated from minimal means’ says Mitchell. ‘It feels symphonic’.
There are many different vibrant and cultural references in True Think. Mitchell explains that it wasn’t conscious but ‘a reflection of my life. There are over 400 languages spoken in London. I want to show that all the varieties of cuisine, dress, speech and colours are something to celebrate. True Think is this consciousness, expressed in music. But the real appeal of True Think is that it's about a bunch of humans in a room who are deeply connected. It's so much more than a group: it's like a tribe, a town, or a little society working towards an idea, just like the Ghanaian post office workers'.
Robert Mitchell & True Think play at the Granary on Saturday 21 October, 7:45pm