On A Pouting Grimace (Pi Recordings), Matt Mitchell’s fifth outing as a leader, the pianist has created, along with producer David Torn, an otherworldly musical ecosystem through a uniquely orchestrated large ensemble and seemingly endless rhythmic, melodic, and textural invention.
The ensemble consists of Mitchell on piano, synthesizer, & electronics, Kim Cass on double bass, Kate Gentile on drums & percussion, Dan Weiss on tabla, Ches Smith on percussion & timpani, Sara Schoenbeck on bassoon, Jon Irabagon on saxophones, Patricia Brennan on marimba, Scott Robinson on bass sax & contrabass clarinet, Katie Andrews on harp, Anna Webber on flutes, Ben Kono on oboe & english horn, and Tyshawn Sorey as occasional conductor. The ensemble is frequently not fully represented in each piece, which allows the overall arc of the album to be bolstered by a fluctuating instrumentation, distinctively unifying the record into a single experience.
Our introduction to A Pouting Grimace is a piece solely comprised of Mitchell’s electronics, “Bulb Terminus”, which immediately conveys the environment in which the rest of the record is built. It is a soundscape full of interesting timbres, a certain sense of unfamiliarity, and an organic and fluid fluctuation of time that somehow still feels, despite its lack of tangible pulse, like it’s derived from some distant groove in another dimension.
The electronics give way to the first ensemble statement in “Plate Shapes”, which features a rhythmically morphing and delightfully disorienting structure aggressively maintained by the bass, piano, drums, vibraphone, and sopranino saxophone, through which Sara Schoenbeck’s thoughtful improvisation weaves. The material deftly creates and subverts the listener’s expectations quickly and often, while simultaneously bearing a quality of repetition that taps into the energy of American Minimalism. Eventually, it becomes clear that the listener’s only option is to give up on expectation and simply absorb the music as it comes.
A major point of interest is the unique orchestration of the ensemble, which on this track consists of the consistent rhythm section of Mitchell, Cass, and Gentile, as well as vibraphone, marimba, sopranino sax, and bassoon. The composed textures through the piece are incredibly refreshing — novel, thought-out, and reckless — the sonorities fall into an energetic and intellectually stimulating aesthetic akin to some kind of Free Jazz Spectralism.
The orchestration lightens during a soloistic passage for bassist Kim Cass, a young virtuoso whose rhythmic and melodic language have found a fitting partner in Mitchell, before the — up until this point — acoustic ensemble is unexpectedly joined by Mitchell’s synthesizer. Continuing the trend of subverting the listener’s expectations, this piece sets a precedent for the remainder of the record, establishing a musical environment of energetic unpredictability.
The remainder of the record flows naturally through disparate elements. There are two more electronic pieces punctuating the record in the middle (“Deal Sweeteners” and “Squalid ink”), effectively dividing it into two halves, as well as a more lengthy and developed electronic piece that serves as a kind of epilogue to the record as whole (“Ooze Interim”) — seemingly answering the questions posed by the electronic prologue of “Bulb Terminus”.
Within that framework there are moments that echo the visceral trudging of doom metal (“Heft”), pieces that feel like what a 21st-century Morton Feldman piece might have been (“Sick Fields”), and an overall cohesion in ochestrational, melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ingenuity. One of my personal favorite moments is on track 3, “Mini Alternate,” which features a passage of counterpoint between upper register-piano, glockenspiel, soprano sax, and bass sax that honestly just sounds really, really cool. Not to mention the very welcome presence of the harp and tabla, the integration of which feels remarkably organic.
This album is fascinating, surreal, beautiful, and generous purely in the amount of material Mitchell & Co. have given us to enjoy. It’s the musical equivalent of being thrust into some Jules-Vernian sci-fi world beneath the surface of the Earth and you suddenly come face-to-face with some kind of strange, subterranean groove-organism, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
A Pouting Grimace, the latest album from pianist Matt Mitchell is out now on Pi Recordings.
Produced by David Torn and Matt Mitchell
Mixed and mastered by David Torn
Matt Mitchell – piano, Prophet 6, electronics
Kim Cass – upright bass
Kate Gentile – drums, gongs, percussion
Ches Smith – vibraphone, glockenspiel, bongos, timpani, gongs, Haitian tanbou, percussion
Dan Weiss – tabla
Patricia Brennan – vibraphone, marimba
Katie Andrews – harp
Anna Webber – flute, alto flute, bass flute
Jon Irabagon – sopranino sax, soprano sax
Ben Kono – oboe, English horn
Sara Schoenbeck – bassoon
Scott Robinson – bass sax, contrabass clarinet
Tyshawn Sorey – conductor