Robert Mitchell



Artist Interview

Festival Programme


‘Music, especially now, is essential to continually reveal our potential, and to speed our evolution towards it. We are fighting the devaluation of depth, integrity, and the development of the spirit especially in the West’ 

In recent years, the art of Jazz has become more and more entrenched in pedantic study and technical proficiency for its own sake at the expense of the profound search for Truth and the jubilant exposition of free expression represented by its most revered masters. Composer/pianist Robert Mitchell is a throwback to that powerful tradition of artistic mastery in pursuit of transcendence. Whether performing in the solo context or with his 4/5-piece ensemble Panacea or any of his other formats, Robert’s focus is upon the highest ideals of the essence of Jazz.

Like many artists who grew up in the post-60s environment, Robert was exposed to a full gamut of musical disciplines from hardcore Western Classicism through World music traditions. Growing up in a musical family – his father was a vocalist who organized variety shows and participated in the great production of Carmen Jones at London’s Young Vic Theatre – Robert began serious piano studies at the age of 6 in the established UK conservatory system. Blending this with a listening love of Soul, R&B and popular music of the 70s/80s, Robert began to develop his own sense of musical expression.

An epiphany occurred upon hearing the legendary Jazz pianists Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson “at just the right time for my ears and heart,” provoking the young pianist to “understand the components that made their approaches so special….and to begin discovering how to make my own versions of that special beauty.” Continuing to pursue his formal education, a BSC degree followed at City University in London, which included a course of study at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

In the early 90s, Robert began to emerge as an important member of the London scene with two groups Quite Sane and Tomorrow’s Warriors. Poles apart in their music and purpose – New York influenced fusion/hip-hop vs. 40s-60s bebop/hardbop – the diversity foretold Robert’s wide-angle view of Jazz expression. This quickly led to further involvement with internationally known figures from both sides of the Atlantic, including Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Courtney Pine and Steve Williamson.

All of these experiences focused Robert more heavily upon his personal expression of what he needed to contribute as composer and bandleader. “I am convinced that each era of great creativity has been marked by a consistency of intent, and within bands, a consistency of personnel.” In the current environment, that consistency of personnel is quite difficult to maintain, but with consistency of intent and an organic approach that Robert explains as “meeting every unexpected situation with a solution,” Robert has forged a variety of structures within which he has been able to pursue the full scope of his powerfully expansive musical vision.

Over his nearly 20 years entrenched in the art of music, Robert has recorded seven albums of his own projects, participated in over 100 projects as a sideman and has performed in more than 30 countries. Robert has won awards in the UK – BBC Jazz Awards (Innovation, as part of the F-ire Collective), Best Jazz Album (BBC DJ Gilles Peterson Worldwide Awards) has been nominated for many more. Robert is proud to be a Steinway Artist.

These days his primary focal points include his long-running ensemble Panacea; solo performance (including a current fascination with one-handed works, of which he will be curating a festival in London in 2013); ongoing collaborations with Cuban violinist Omar Puente and Cuban percussionist Ernesto Simpson; and a tribute to Nina Simone with U.S. vocalist Jhelisa Anderson (reuniting for the first time since their highly acclaimed UK tour with Mavis Staples in 2008). In addition to all of this Robert is involved in a variety of institutional and private educational activities.

Working with longtime U.S. arts consulting and management organization, Outward Visions (George Russell, Steve Reich, John Zorn, Art Ensemble of Chicago, World Saxophone Quartet), Robert is organizing a Collective of innovative and prominent UK musicians and developing recording projects with Whirlwind and Edition Records. As his reputation has consistently grown as one of the UK’s most serious and respected composer/pianists, Robert Mitchell is ideally suited to be a powerful force in the newest developments of both the music and its business environment

“I wish to encapsulate the feeling of endless upward progress – to remove the apparent divisions between inspiration, notation, deployment, and performance. And to appeal to the idea that there is no limit to the amount of beauty we can reveal in the universe”

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What was the first piece for left hand only – that you performed?

This was a tune called The Glimpse. It is an original of mine, composed at the house of my great Cuban violinist friend – Omar Puente. It is a contemplative tune – and it inspired by thoughts about our own human potential. Especially with this context of seeking beauty within limits, or allowing another side of ourselves to be brought to the fore.. It is a simple tune, and i had not yet commit anything to paper on its first performance in the Chapel Arts Centre in Bath , UK – in 2010 as part of the Bath International Jazz Festival. It has subsequently featured as a bit of a calming encore on certain shows with my group Panacea, and it got me thinking more deeply about this approach, left handedness, history , culture, and starting a little festival..

Why did you choose such a piece? (or why was it chosen for you?)

I think my left hand chose it, as soon as it was written ! I had previously written a solo piano commission a few year ago (first performed by Ivo De Greef), which i think had opened the door to the possibilities. This was my first written LH only piece. I was not thinking yet about performing this way, and so was simply enjoying the fact as a composer – that some ideas and direction started to flow after many days of panic. I chose the piece as its calms, puts a capital C on contemplate, and forces me to deal with a narrow ledge on which to perch while creating as much beauty and clarity that i can.

How often do you perform music for one hand? Could it be more often?

Not as often as i would like – but certainly each year. It could definitely be more and i have tried to address this by doing my first UK solo piano tour (2013), and doing a solo album of LH original music , and founding/curating this festival . I would love to do this eventually in more of less each performance. For it to be an expected part, not a party trick , but one facet of this creative journey.

Do you have a preference of instrument for the performance of this music?

I would say this , as a Steinway Artist, but it would be a Steinway D grand piano. The is a wonderful contrast – in the endless potential of this instrument, and the one hand looking to unlock it. It is always a privelege to perform on such an instrument, and i think its range and power offer a fantastic foundation to the one hand approach. You come away a better person after moment spent with a instrument of that quality. The Forge (1st Festival venue) has a beautiful B – which makes for a great recital room.

Have you ever performed a premiere/commissioned.composed a new work for left hand only?

As i have mentioned composing in questions 1+2, and have also premiered the same work, that leaves commissioning. I would love to commission composers to write more for the LH piano – regardless of genre. I would hope the festival could be in a position to do this with regularity one day. I would hope the challenge would bring a big creative reward , and be an expansive experience .

What kind of feedback have you had in performing lh ony piano music?

Many fascinating conversations , as the music links many different areas. From those not even realising there was a history of this appraoch to the piano, through disbeleif that one hand is truly alone, and observations on the essential clarity of improvised expression. I think some regard this as simply showing off, but I completely disagree.

How do you prepare for this type of performance?

In part – actually not thinking of , or refering to this, as a piano. The changes in operation can almost make it feel like that. The seat moves an octave to the right.The focus on pedaling , and grading of rhythm ,melody ,harmony and clarity of improvised form/flow is more myopic. This is used to potentially draw on the illusion of polyphony – the sleight of ear/hand that perceives more is being played than really is (possible), rhythmic interplay implied connection to /imitation of the guitar/violin/cello/voice etc the nature of foreground/background and flow in improvisation the relationship of compromise to a bigger idea that may only be able to be played partially, gradually revealed etc. highlighting the beauty of being drawn in and listening to a world of implication, and not having everything stated/overstated..

What is your opinion on this approach ? Has great music come out of these circumstances?

Great music has definitely come out of these circumstances, and i think more is to come. Without a doubt , the limit has made the creativity come forth in a different way. The thinking has had to change as a result of the circumstance. I think a change in attitude could yeal much more fantastic music. It has been brought to the attention of history , via defiance, war, born or illness related disability and incredible passion. Imagine what could be possible with full acceptance and support. Thus my opinion is that this is not only an equally valid approach, but the surface of its potential has only been scratched. The path of the river is changed, but it still has to continue its flow.

What effect has it had on your relationship to the piano, your creativity as an improvisor/composer/commissioner ?

I am an eternal student at the piano anyhow – but this is yet another completely fascinating stage. It literally feels as though i am discovering another musician within myself – that deserves more time centre stage. Each solo piece for the lh is a challenge that is affecting my choices for both hands, my teaching, and my options within ensemble playing . I am loving researching more deeply into the history of lh piano – within Jazz and Classical history.

My creativity as a composer has benefitted from this challenge – and this stemmed from my experience of that first commissioned piece from 2008.

This was called Realm (A tribute to Keith Jarrett). I knew i had more potential to see what else i could create in this area, and enjoyed the whole process- inclluding the initial difficulties (eventually!). It was brilliantly premiered by Ivo De Greef in Lisbon – and am very grateful to be asked. I cant remember when Mr Jarrett said this -but i am sure the recent quote ‘the left hand is the last frontier of the piano’ is attributed to him. It could well have been amongst the reasons for my choice to do that piece for lh only (as he is such a complete musician – a tribute to one hand of his works just fine!). I know the great pianist/teacher Godowsky also raved about the potential effect of visionary creativity/new possibilities of piano technique- that could arise from the left hand getting more of a central role.

I would love to see what could arise from being able to commission composers. But also to offer the encouraging support of a festival dedicated to raising the profile of this type of pianistic approach, via new music, and bold performers. I would love to honor the inspirational figures who knew there was definitely something interesting to be discovered in this area.

What do you think about the Leftitude festival ?

I am excited. I have often though all sorts of things should be presented in a festival format, so this led to creating this festival. I was already planning a solo lh recording , and talking to a number of musicians about the approach. I think this is the first festival of its type anywhere. I hope these great musicians will have a great time. I hope we can convert more listeners to this music, and inspire through the talks the artists will give as well.

Do you see this Festival and the surrounding promotion and visibility as something that will be inspirational to artists and individuals facing other challenges?

Coming from a family that has a great deal of nursing in it, i would absolutely hope so. If this can do anything to help change perceptions of disability or rather – different abilities – that would be fantastic. The mere existance , and intention of a festival like this – has been inspired by folk who had to challenge perceptions. They had to be defiant, and trust that great music could be made this way. I think anyone who is able to express themselves, however they do it – via traditional means or having to invent the means – is a very important person. I have also experienced a family member going through losing the use of one hand and its devastating effect . I hope seeing something like this festival exist will help keep great creativity from understandibly ceasing. If we are supposedly evolving – when exactly are we going to celebrate the content of someones character, their creativity etc and not catagorise primarily based on lesser details?

Are there any other ideas you would suggest to make it even more meaningful and productive in that light?

Reaching out to any organisation who is interested in this, in order to help inspire pianists who have one hand (through birth or accident).

The same goes for any musician who has to produce the sound ot their dreams – through a different means.

Who would you choose as an outstanding artist/composer in this special field?

Very tough. Artists include Leon Fleischer, Phineas Newborne Jr, Kenny Drew Jr,Keith Jarrett, Paul Wittgenstein, Clara Schumann.

Composers – Ravel, Bach, Saint-Sains, Britten, Newborne Jr,

Who would you like to see perform at the Leftitude festival?

Keith TIppett, Julian Jospeh, Nicolas Mcarthy, Django Bates, Zoe Rahman, Leon Fleischer, Barry Douglas, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Benjamin Grovesnor, Benoit Delbecq, Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn, Marilyn Crispell, Bojan Z, Emmanuel Ax.

Is there an equivalent approach to other instruments? Performers using this approach?

I know there are always techniques being developed, whether for necessity or experimentation for its own sake. Both are vital. A particular classification of this – may involve instruments originally held, then being supported on the lap or table/stand. Techniques being interchanged between instruments – guitar/violin neck tapping, piano string being played by mallet, cello being played by two bows (held by one performer), double bass as drum . I am sure there is more to come out of the great tradition of automatonic intruments (as recently exemplified by Pat Metheny’s Orchestrion), and the traditions of performers who play more that one instrument simultaneously (one man bands, piano+sax, guitar+harmonica, bass+vocals etc). That would be quite some festival! – i would love to know if that exists somewhere already. Anyhow – these are fascinating and ongoing conversations, and i do beleive there is an equivalent on any instrument. To start to establish /expand/ strengthen these traditions – will be tough. But again the creative payoff – is potentially immense.

Anything else on this topic/festival you would like to say?

If any organisation who would like to help this festival continue – please contact us here.

Any organisation who is involved with people who love to perform music inspite of physical difficulties – this festival may well be able to offer workshops+performances at other times. Please get in contact.

Any artists(direct or from your representative) who wish to be considered for a future festival – email us here.