Pianist Robert Mitchell has managed to combine unusual longevity and security in his ensemble projects (a trio with Richard Spaven and Tom Mason and the larger group Panacaea) with a wider unpredictability and versatility in his musical adventures. It is hard to imagine him coming up with anything quite as unexpected and odd as this again, however. The Glimpse is an album consisting entirely of pieces for left hand only solo piano.
This is not a gimmick for Mitchell. He appears to have enjoyed his in-depth background research almost as much as his interpretation, writing and playing here. He has uncovered a history of left hand only approaches in the classical tradition, as well as a more modest lineage in jazz, incorporating pianists such as Phineas Newborn, Jr., Borah Bergman and Fred Hersch, whose Nocturne For Left Hand Alone Mitchell includes here. This has clearly allowed scope for further development and exploration, taking the left hand only approach as a creative option in and of itself, rather than as a means of correcting deficiencies or developing technique.
Often regarded as a fluid, dexterous musician, Mitchell has also demonstrated strong preoccupations with the use of space and depth. It is these qualities that come to the fore on The Glimpse. From the opening improvisation on Amino to the interpretations of Hersch and Mompou, the music is ruminative, reflective, patient and thoughtful. It is not an easy listen, but then it is not really intended as such. Mitchell is interested in the new pathways that can be opened up through imposing limitations.
Throughout The Glimpse, Mitchell delights in deconstructing our preconceptions about piano playing. Why should the left hand have a primarily accompanying role when it is perfectly capable of fulfilling melodic, harmonic and rhythmic functions all at once? Neither does Mitchell confine his sole working hand to the lower end of the piano’s range. Indeed, Amino concludes with Mitchell exploring polar opposite pitch extremities. Where Mitchell is most active, as in his balancing of an independent line against an ostinato on A Confession, or in the intricate, delicately executed movement of Leftitude, it is hard to believe that he is really only using one hand.
Mitchell’s work here also creates a worthwhile alternative to the most ingrained conventions of contemporary jazz. The pace here is considered and the intensity comes not through restless rhythmic interaction but through careful choices of colours and a powerful sense of individual awareness and acute concentration. There’s also a highly developed melodic sensibility on Zuni Lore and The Defiant Gene. Mitchell’s originals sit very comfortably alongside his interpretations of Federico Mompou and Fred Hersch, two very contrasting writers and pianists who explored the varying possibilities for left hand only performance. Whilst these pieces eschew improvisation, Mitchell’s development of his own themes seem to have been inspired by these radical approaches to the instrument.
Recorded in Liverpool’s Capstone Theatre, the sound quality is excellent, capturing the attention to detail in Mitchell’s playing. It is also possible to hear and appreciate the space and ambience of the room. This is a lovely album of great subtlety that requires patience and concentrated listening but which rewards close attention with revelations of real beauty. It is a glimpse into different and previously unseen musical worlds.