Pianist Robert Mitchell has quietly but assuredly built up an impressive body of work as a composer-bandleader with the larger group Panacea and with this splinter piano trio. Mitchell refused to see the trio format as a confining box and The Embrace, the group’s second album, amply demonstrates his willingness to take risks in the fields of composition, improvisation and interpretation. That he does this with an appealing playfulness and a clear commitment to melodic invention makes it all the more satisfying.
This small unit of musicians has now been working together for over seven years – and the connection between them is obviously strong. The importance of Mitchell’s sidemen here is hard to overstate. Bassist Tom Mason contributes a composition (A Desperate Man) and drummer Richard Spaven offers two (Maz and Rocker’s Round Window). Spaven’s fidgety but accurate drumming supports the group’s melodic imperative with power and quality. Mason’s lines are individual and sonorous and blend brilliantly.
A case in point is the trio’s take on 4Hero’s Third Stream, on which a brooding minimalism eventually broadens into something welcoming, via Mitchell’s gradually thickening voicings. Spaven’s drumming is appropriately rapid and agitated, given the source material, but never intrusive. His cymbal work is also textured, detailed and evocative (there is more of this in evidence at the close of A Tear For Now). There’s plenty of metric trickery here, too, but it is handled in a seemingly effortless and uncontrived manner.
The Embrace reaffirms Mitchell’s commitment to building a contemporary repertoire. The opening track is a superb reinterpretation of Aphex Twin’s Alberto Balsam. Richard D James is an artist increasingly popular within the jazz world – another of his tracks, Flim, was recorded by the US trio The Bad Plus, a group that will inevitably be seen as a model for Mitchell’s own distinctive take on modernising the piano trio. The group are bang up to date with their version of Little Dragon’s Twice but also reach back into the classical repertoire with a final rendition of Schumann’s Traumerei. Credit should also go to Mitchell for his recognition of the excellent, often neglected Bheki Mseleku.
The Embrace displays a wide range of moods and intentions, from the tough to the tender. Richard Spaven’s Maz has eerie broken chords in the manner of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and is perhaps the album’s most impressionistic moment. Mitchell’s dexterity on Cycles makes his acoustic piano sound oddly like a synthesiser. Where the group perhaps sound most comfortable is in the merging of muscular rhythms with more lyrical studies. On Alberto Balsam, Mitchell refracts and reshapes Aphex Twin’s pleasurably whimsical theme. On Rocker’s Round Window, melody, rhythm and harmony seem brilliantly integrated.
Perhaps the overall highlight is Mitchell’s own title track, a taut, sinewy piece with an infectious single line melody that also boasts some effortless grooving from Mason and Spaven. The album as a whole is a delight, once again confirming the group’s credentials and providing further evidence of their potential to reach a wider audience.