Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Matt Mitchell - Fiction

Matt Mitchell

The first time I played Fiction, I came to it blindly, listening while I did some unrelated work without knowing the music's origins. Before the six-minute opener "Veins" was even complete, my teeth were gnashing. It was a complex, highly dissonant set of piano clusters that kept changing time signatures, but still kept repeating in its own unique knot. The tracks that followed were equally abrasive, with Mitchell's piano banging away and Ches Smith aiding and abetting him on drums and occasionally vibes. Was this contemporary new music mixed with free jazz and a healthy dose of irreverence?

As it turns out, Mitchell composed these brief numbers (most clock in around four minutes) not as performance pieces but as etudes to practice in order to get his chops warmed up. There are a lot of intervallic leaps and they require deep concentration, so they succeed in that regard. Drummer Smith, who plays with Mitchell in Tim Berne's Snakeoil band, started playing along with Mitchell during pre-show warmups so it was a natural that he join the pianist in the studio.

Hearing the music in context, it makes more sense. Practice pieces can be go either way for the listener, as something dazzling in its virtuosity or technical and unexciting for the listener. The locked-hands ugly chords of "Brain Color" sound intriguing. While the brief "Tether" seems like a mutant strain on "Epistrophy," "Action Field" goes on for nearly 11 minutes, rising to a climax and staying there for a couple minutes before finishing. The presence of Smith adds shape to the music, as if to prove this isn't just a series of spontaneous thoughts coming from Mitchell's head. Smith's accompaniment varies too, going from full-kit crashes and gentle rim taps to the use of the vibes to add to the melody. Sometimes Smith moves between both settings, like in "Commas," where he gets a distorted, tremelo sound on the vibes briefly.

Mitchell clearly has an impressive command of his instrument but in the end, the 15 tracks here are still exercises. If he went into any improvisations on the forms, they are hard to discern. What's easier to notice is the repetition. "Narcotic Bases" breaks from the pack with a melody in the upper register of the piano, but it comes with no variation on the melody in four minutes.

In the end, it's interesting to hear how Mitchell prepares himself for a performance with a rigourous workout. But the warm-up would be more interesting in small doses, preferably interspersed with the main event.

No comments: