by Ian Mann
January 31, 2022
Smart and Mitchell achieve a remarkable rapport, this is very much a partnership of equals working in tandem in pursuit of a common cause. A triumph for both musicians.
Shirley Smart & Robert Mitchell
(Discus Music - Discus 116CD)
Shirley Smart – cello
Robert Mitchell – piano, spoken word
““Zeitgeist²” is the début recording from the duo of cellist Shirley Smart and pianist Robert Mitchell, the ‘2’ in the title representing ‘squared’ rather than ‘second’ or ‘sequel’.
The pair first met in 2013 when Smart worked with Mitchell on his large scale string / choral project “Invocation”, which was successfully premièred the following year with performances in Bournemouth and London.
Discussions arising from this project revealed that both come from classical backgrounds whilst sharing interests in jazz, composition, improvisation, education (both hold prestigious teaching appointments) and political and social concerns.
As a duo the pair have sought to blend aspects of the classical tradition with the art of improvisation. Both have found the lack of improvised content in classical music to be a source of frustration, but also a source of inspiration, as they attempt to revive this ‘lost aspect’ of the classical tradition. Smart’s comment in the album liner notes perhaps best summarises their approach most succinctly, speaking of;
“a shared interest in exploring improvisation in a variety of contexts, but without the need to separate them by genre, an approach which I think has infused both the choice of repertoire and the ways we reacted to it in our performances”.
The album was recorded by Spencer Cozens at Steinway Studios in Grantham in January 2020, just before the outset of the pandemic, an event that has both delayed the release of the album, which had to be mixed remotely, and curtailed the duo’s intended live performances. Mitchell’s notes speak of the frustrations the pandemic has caused to professional musicians, in terms of both recordings and live work. The album was eventually officially launched with two live performances at London’s Vortex Jazz Club on 20th January 2022.
With regard to material the programme features original compositions by both Mitchell and Smart in addition to pieces by Howard Skempton (born 1947) and CPE Bach (1714-88). Two of Mitchell’s pieces include him reciting his own poetry, these having been debuted at a concert organised by vocalist Georgia Mancio at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, London in October 2019, Mitchell’s first ever narration in front of a live audience.
Both musicians have been regularly featured on the Jazzmann web pages. Smart’s excellent 2019 solo album “Long Story Short”, recorded with a core trio featuring John Crawford on piano and Demi Garcia-Sabat on drum kit and percussion is reviewed here;
This trio also performs live on a regular basis, sometimes expanded to a sextet with the addition of other musicians.
Smart has also led the appropriately named world jazz ensemble Melange and appeared on recordings by pianist/accordionist Maurizio Minardi (a Melange group member) and by violinist/vocalist Alice Zawadzki. A review of the 2016 Melange album release “Via Maris” appears elsewhere on the Jazzmann website and can be read here;
Smart and Zawadzki also work together in an all strings trio that also features bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado.
Others with whom she has worked include pianists Neil Cowley, Meg Morley, Steve Beresford and Elliot Galvin, saxophonist Binker Golding and guitarists Maciek Pysz, Nicolas Meier and Antonio Forcione.
Smart has also performed with fellow cellist (and vocalist) Kate Shortt as the duo Shortt and Smart. Another duo project is her ongoing project with multi-reeds player James Arben, in which the focus is very much on free improvisation.
In 2018 Smart was part of the all female ten piece band Interchange that made its début at Cheltenham Jazz Festival under the leadership of baritone saxophonist and composer Issie Barratt. My review of that performance can be read as part of my Festival coverage here;
Other ongoing projects include the ten piece Sefiroth ensemble, led by guitarist Alex Roth, which explores the music of the Sephardic (Judeo Spanish) tradition whilst drawing on a range of other Middle Eastern and North African influences.
Meanwhile the smaller Balagan Café Band, a trio featuring guitarist Christian Miller and violinist Richard Jones, roams even further afield, taking in gypsy jazz, Argentinian tango, Balkan folk music and more.
Sawa, a trio with Iraqi born vocalist Alya Al-Sultani and pianist Clemens Poetsczh improvises around Iraqi and Arabic folk themes and released an eponymous EP in 2016.
Robert Mitchell has also graced the Jazzmann web pages in a variety of contexts, ranging from solo pianist to leading his own eight piece ensemble Panacea, a group that straddles the boundaries between jazz, soul and classical music, the line up including vocalist Deborah Jordan plus a three strong string section. Mitchell has also recorded as a duo with the Cuban born jazz violinist Omar Puente. Their 2006 album “Bridges” is reviewed here;
My favourite outlet for Mitchell’s writing and playing has been his superb 3io, featuring and drummer Richard Spaven and Panacea bassist Tom Mason. My review of this trio’s brilliant 2008 album “The Greater Good” can be found here;
3io also gave a superb performance at the 2009 Cheltenham Jazz Festival, an account of which can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;
Mitchell is now working with a new trio, Epiphany 3, featuring Mason on bass and Saleem Rahman at the drums. This line up released the album “A Vigil For Justice, A Vision For Peace” in 2017, a recording that also features Mitchell’s poetry. The group has sometimes been supplemented by French saxophonist Julien Lourau.
As a sideman Mitchell has worked with saxophonists Lourau, Courtney Pine, Steve Coleman, Steve Williamson, Greg Osby, Stephane Payen and Tom Harrison, drummer Miles Bould, vibraphonist Orphy Robinson, percussionist Eugene Skeef and the jazz / poetry group Staggerlee Wonders.
The new album commences with Smart’s composition “Opal”, which reveals the duo to be perfectly matched, the delicate melancholy of Smart’s bowing complemented by Mitchell’s lyricism at the piano. Classical discipline and technique is combined with the élan of jazz, particularly during the moments when Mitchell’s piano takes the lead, supported by Smart’s pizzicato cello bass lines.
Mitchell’s “The First Note” features his speaking voice as he recites his own poem. The work “imagines a seemingly distant world where we have a global anthem, to mirror a peace we no longer question as permanent. A song not of nations, but of humanity”. Wishful thinking perhaps, but Mitchell’s words carry a powerful and universal message. Musically the piece features voice and cello only with Smart skilfully underpinning Mitchell’s narration. The poet praises her contribution, remarking “Shirley brilliantly set a sympathetic scene – in one take”.
Smart spent several years in Israel, living in Jerusalem and absorbing the music and culture of the wider Middle East. Her piece “Anxieties” is described by its composer as “a short and simple piece that combines a bebop-ish line dissolving into a more modal Middle Eastern mawaal- style invocation”. She goes on to explain that given her involvement in both musical areas the juxtaposition feels very natural, and she praises cultural and social convergences in general.
Musically it’s an intriguing piece, not quite as short or as simple as the composer suggests but a work full of diverse but convergent influences and packed with many delightful twists and turns. Smart again deploys both arco and pizzicato techniques as each musician slips seamlessly into a rhythmic role when the other is soloing. That said there is also plenty of vivacious dialogue with each player very much on an equal footing.
“Zeitgeist” itself is an old Mitchell tune, written over a decade ago but hitherto unrecorded. The piece was originally inspired by a documentary series of the same name by the film maker and musician Peter Joseph. It was originally conceived as a piano piece for the left hand only, an area of music that has long held a fascination for Mitchell. His excellent 2013 solo piano album “The Glimpse” featured a collection of pieces for performance by the left hand only. Review here;
That same year Mitchell also hosted the two day Leftitude Festival at the now defunct Forge venue in Camden, London, featuring left hand only performances by a variety of pianists including himself.
On this performance of “Zeitgeist” the piano part remains left hand only. As befits a piece informed by environmental and political concerns the piece is sombre and reflective in mood with Mitchell’s deep piano sonorities matched by Smart’s melancholic and highly evocative bowing.
Mitchell’s fascination with single hand piano techniques also finds expression in an arrangement of CPE Bach’s “Klavierstuck in A”, a piece originally written for performance by left or right hand alone. This version features Mitchell playing with both hands as he and Smart use the structure of the piece as a basis for improvisation. The counterpoint typical of the era is combined with vibrant joint improvisation, creating a performance that beguiles the listener. Mitchell’s liner notes speak of the importance of reviving the art of improvisation in classical music at all levels.
The other ‘outside’ item is “For Catherine”, a tribute to the classical cellist Catherine Cormac written by the composer Howard Skempton. Mitchell was alerted to the piece by jazz pianist Pat Thomas and had previously performed it as part of his left hand only piano repertoire. Mitchell regards the work as a companion piece to “Klavierstuck” and refers to its “strong melody”, which serves as an equally powerful accompaniment figure for Smart’s cello improvisations. It’s a hauntingly beautiful piece that features some of the cellist’s most expressive arco playing and again features her deployment of the pizzicato technique during the piano led episodes.
Mitchell’s “Inner Sanctum”, also referred to as “Inner Glimpse” in his liner notes, is an instrumental version of a song scheduled for a future release. It serves as a reminder to concentrate one’s thoughts and sense of purpose in spite of the “ever growing noise distractions” of the digital age and the resultant diminution of attention spans. Here Mitchell and Smart distil their thoughts into two and a half minutes of concentrated beauty, seemingly thinking as one.
The album’s second poetic item is Mitchell’s “A Son of Windrush Reflects”, a tribute to his mother, who served as a nurse in the NHS for forty three years. It tells the story of her medical career and the racism she faced, from both the medical establishment and from certain ungrateful, racist patients. It also tackles the still topical subject of the Windrush scandal and represents a scathing attack on the current Tory government. The accompanying liner note is even more pointed and visceral. Mitchell’s political and poetic eloquence, his words delivered in impeccably enunciated English, is comparable to that of Linton Kwesi Johnson, even though the style of delivery, both musically and vocally, is very different. More than forty years after Johnson’s landmark album “Forces of Victory” and the track “Sonny’s Lettah” has that much really changed?
Musically “A Son of Windrush Reflects” is another performance for voice and cello only, with Smart delivering another brilliantly empathic response, making effective use of both plucking and bowing techniques.
Both “A Son of Windrush Reflects” and the earlier “The First Note” are featured in Mitchell’s forthcoming second poetry collection “City Of Sanctuary”.
The album concludes with Smart’s “Mind’s Eye”, a piece that she describes as attempting to “capture that sense of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge referred to as the suspension of disbelief, or that place where one can step outside of current reality and see it from the outside”. Although she describes the piece as “reflective” the music features five plus minutes of intense musical interaction between cello and piano, with Smart again deploying both arco and pizzicato techniques. That Middle Eastern influence, of which she has spoken, is again apparent and is evident in both her bowed and plucked lines.
“Zeitgeist²” represents an impressive piece of work from two of the UK’s leading performers on their respective instruments. Smart and Mitchell achieve a remarkable rapport, this is very much a partnership of equals working in tandem in pursuit of a common cause.
The music covers a broad range of influences, successfully merging elements of jazz and Western classical music with the sounds of Smart’s beloved Middle East. I’m not usually a fan of spoken word on music albums but Mitchell’s recitations are highly effective and make very salient political points. Smart’s musical responses to his words are little short of brilliant and these voice / cello episodes must make an even greater emotional impact in live performance.
The music itself is often very beautiful, and the album can be enjoyed for this alone, but it also makes serious musical and political points that demand a deeper level of appreciation. As such it represents a triumph for both musicians.
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