by Ian Mann
March 21, 2013
This solo piano album of left hand only pieces represents more than just an interesting concept, it's a wholly successful artistic statement in its own right .
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4630)
Pianist Robert Mitchell has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages, appearing in a variety of contexts from solo pianist to the leader of the song based ensemble Panacea. Along the way there’s been a duo with Cuban born violinist Omar Puente and my favourite context for Mitchell’s music, his “3io” with bassist Tom Mason and drummer Richard Spaven; their 2008 album “The Greater Good”, reviewed elsewhere on this site, remains a personal favourite.
Classically trained Mitchell possesses a formidable technique and is also a highly intelligent person and musician with a fiercely intellectual approach to his work - but he’s also thoroughly approachable and affable and on the occasions that I’ve spoken to him has always come across as a thoroughly nice guy. However there’s no mistaking how serious Mitchell is about his music, he’s a great musical theorist and has the necessary technique to put his ideas into practice.
When writing about Mitchell previously I’ve always commented about the role his left hand has played in his performances, on many occasions his left hand work has almost seemed more important than that of his right. So perhaps it should come as no surprise to discover that “The Glimpse” is a set of solo piano pieces for the left hand only. Recorded on the Steinway D grand piano at the Capstone Theatre in Liverpool- the first album to be recorded there - it’s a surprisingly absorbing and enjoyable set with Mitchell transcending his self imposed technical limitations to produce an admirably varied and accessible album. In a blindfold test a musician would possibly pick up on the unusual nature of the performance, the average listener, such as myself, probably would not.
Ironically it’s arguably Mitchell’s self imposed restrictions that make this such a successful album. Previous Mitchell solo piano performances, both live and on album, have been intense, busy affairs with Mitchell often squeezing out torrents of notes. It’s impressive and often dazzling but can ultimately become somewhat tiring for the listener. The left hand only limitation has reduced Mitchell’s options and thereby distilled his music to its essence. There’s an agreeably “ECM like” quality to the music here with a far greater use of space than on virtually every other Mitchell recording.
As Mitchell’s liner notes make clear the concept of left hand only piano playing isn’t new. He cites Geza Zichy, Paul Wittgenstein and Leopold Godowsky as exponents from the classical tradition whilst referencing Phineas Newborn Jr, Borah Bergman, Kenny Drew and Bill Evans from the jazz world, with Evans forced to play left hand only at an engagement at the Village Vanguard in New York city due to an injury to his right hand. Bud Powell performed left handed in response to criticism from Art Tatum who asserted that Powell didn’t use his left enough in normal circumstances. There was even some crossover between the jazz and classical works with Fats Waller meeting Godowsky and Eubie Blake corresponding with Joseph Schillinger. As a left hander himself Mitchell is keen to bring the art of left hand only performance to a wider public, hence the two day Leftitude Festival featuring left hand only performances by a variety of pianists including Mitchell being held at The Forge, Camden, London on the evenings 20th and 21st March 2013.
Mitchell’s notes go on to discuss the subject of left handedness in general and the still inherent prejudice against the left handed that persists to this day. As a fellow “lefty” I can empathise with him, it is a prejudice that is rarely talked about, one of the last great taboos. You can still insult a person for their left handedness with no fear of official retribution. Similarly I’m an “only child” and thus offer a second target for the well honed insult, the unthinking, prejudiced remarks of an ignorant society. So more power to Mr. Mitchell’s left hand and to the Leftitude Festival!
As Mitchell’s liner notes make clear his attitude to left handedness and the negative way in which it is perceived by so many cultures is reflected in his tune titles. Each piece comes with a brief statement of explanation in a programme consisting of seven Mitchell original compositions, three improvisations and two “outside” pieces; one by the classical composer Federico Mompou, the other by the American jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch, another master of the solo piano format.
The album begins with the brief but stately improvisation “Amino”, which Mitchell describes as “an opening statement and a tiny tribute to those magical building blocks of life who have original left and right handed versions”.
This is followed by the Mitchell composition “Zuni Lore” which he dedicates to the Native American tribe who venerate left handedness as a good sign, a contrast to so many other cultures. The music itself is elegant and spacious with that quality of “distillation” referred to previously readily apparent.
“Prelude No. 6” offers an unhurried exploration of this piece by the Franco Spanish classical composer Federico Mompou (1893-1987). Mitchell refers to Mompou’s brilliance and applauds his willingness to write in an open style offering plenty of scope and flexibility for interpretation, often by omitting barlines. The piece is definitely classical in style but I found myself rather enjoying it. According to Mitchell Mompou’s reputation is gradually beginning to grow albeit rather belatedly. This fine interpretation will do it no harm at all.
“Leftitude” is the brief improvisation that gave its name to a festival. Mitchell describes it as “an improvisation based on an orbit around a single Ab sus chord” and as a piece celebrating the positive future of the left hand.
The Mitchell composition “The Defiant Gene” is a celebration, albeit a rather pensive one, of the survival of the genetics giving rise to left handedness. Meanwhile the equally thoughtful “The Sage” is for those “integrative thinkers/intuits everywhere” looking to break down the barriers of the great left/right divide.
Based around a repeated rhythmic pattern “The Confession” refers to a married couple who kept their left handedness a secret from society at large and from each other as both were “sinistral” - it’s a short linguistic step from this to the pejorative word “sinister”. Initially Mitchell appears to be playing a typical left hand figure but as further melodic elements are introduced it becomes almost incredible that this is the work of just one hand.
“Lullaby No. 1 (Infinite Ivy)” typifies the air of serenity that runs through much of this often beautiful album. This is followed by “The Re-Emergent”, a celebration of Samuel M Randolph, author of the book “Hidden Handedness”. It was once common practice to force left handed children to write with their right hands, with the use of force if necessary. Randolph argues that this practice could cause great psychological damage to the “submergees” as he referred to them. A victim of this process Randolph approaches his work from an autobiographical viewpoint and incredibly rediscovered and re-learnt his true handedness as an adult in his forties. Mitchell’s playing is initially sparse and tentative, later becoming more lucid and complex, mirroring the story of Randolph the re-emergent.
“Nocturne For The Left Hand Alone” is by Fred Hersch, perhaps the best jazz solo piano performer I’ve seen (I can’t afford Keith Jarrett’s ticket prices!). Hersch’s solo show at The Edge Arts Centre in Much Wenlock in 2012 was totally captivating from start to finish. Mitchell serves his composition well here on an album that in its own away rivals Hersch’s own “Alone” as a solo piano masterpiece.
Title track “The Glimpse”, written in 2010, represents Mitchell’s first ever left hand only composition and is as good as anything on the album. He dedicates it to “all our unexplored facets"and allows an element of improvisational freedom within the compositional framework.
The album concludes with a final improvisation, “Alice’s Touch”, which appears to be dedication to Mitchell’s young daughter (she’s also the dedicatee of “Lullaby No.1”). It’s a delightfully tender piece which maintains a unified mood throughout and completes a very fine album.
The concept of performing an entire album of piano pieces solely with the left hand may at first appear to be just a gimmick but Mitchell has thought things through with typical thoroughness and the album represents more than just an interesting concept, it’s a wholly successful artistic statement in its own right and one of Mitchell’s most satisfying recordings to date.
“The Glimpse” is being supported by an extensive UK tour which includes the previously mentioned Leftitude Festival. Visit http://www.robertmitchellmusic.com for details of forthcoming dates.