Concert review: Robert Mitchell 3io/Ivo de Greef

mac, Birmingham UK

The stage was beautifully lit, the reconditioned Bosendorfer gleamed, and the PA sound was excellent, bringing the bass out warm and rounded, keeping the drums crisp and forceful but in proportion in the mix, and letting the full range of the piano shine.

Drummer Shaney Forbes is an old friend of pianist Robert Mitchell but he hasn’t been in this trio all that long – not that you’d have known that from last night. The two locked in perfectly, especially when Mitchell rose to his percussive climaxes, his hands a blur above the keys. Tom Mason stood between them pushing the pulse just as strongly. The bassist took some lyrical solos during the evening, and Mitchell’s tasteful fills behind them show him to be as strong in support as he is leading this band.

It’s a group which is quickly gaining a signature sound, blending hip-hop beats and minimalist structures into the jazz piano trio format in a seamless fashion.

The tunes came from the late South African pianist Bheki Mseleku and from Massive Attack as well as from Mitchell himself. It is music stronger on tension than release, partly because that is how Mitchell builds his solos, constructing multi-stranded themes with both hands equally important, then knotting them ever tighter in complex twists and turns, all the while building the intensity and therefore the excitement .

The first half provided me with one really enjoyable musical experience and a lot of food for thought,. The musical experience was Jonathan Powell’s Sonata VIII, which was the contemporary composer’s elaborate construction based on Antonio Carlos Jobim song, Aguas de Marco (Waters of March). Of course it is hard to make something dull from one of the finest pieces of songwriting from the 20th century; nevertheless, Powell’s piece provided new insights into the original as well as achieving its own ends.

This was one of the pieces pianist Ivo de Greef commissioned as part of his Keith Jarrett project, and was inspired by the way Jarrett reworks standard tunes. Other contemporary composers enlisted included Argentinian Gustavo Beytelmann and Robert Mitchell, who supplied a strong piece for left-hand only. De Greef interspersed them with performances of transcriptions of Jarrett.

These pieces, and especially the transcriptions, got me to thinking about why I get more from a jazz performance than from a classical one. I think it has something to do with the way the music is getting to me. I have a nagging suspicion that jazz, like that beer the name of which I can’t recall, reaches places others can’t reach – specifically in the mind, heart and body of the performer. It seems that music pre-composed and (merely) being played by the musician in the room with us, flows from ink on page through the eyes and to the perfectly classically schooled fingers; whereas the music being composed as it is played, if you like, is taking a more complex and organic path through the musician in front of us. And with more satisfying results for the listener.

Certainly on the evidence of first half versus second, this would seem to be the case.

The greatly restructured theatre is a fine space, the seats are much more comfortable but I am unable to comment on the noisiness or otherwise of the air conditioning because it wasn’t on. It was therefore soporifically warm.

Categories: Live review

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4 replies

  1. Very interesting comments. I felt Ivo de Greef’s set was much enhanced by his clear and informative intriductions to each piece.

    There is another contrast worth making, that between the Robert Mitchell 3io at mac last night and the Neil Cowley Trio at the CBSO Centre the previous Saturday. One couple whose judgement I really respect commented on how much they had enjoyed Robert Mitchell and indeed bought the CD, but had disliked Neil Cowley, in fact leaving at the interval. Robert Mitchell’s trio is undoubtedly the one that appeals to the jazz fan who enjoys the strong element of improvisation in the way that Peter describes, i.e. building up tension withe occasional resolution and relief. Neil Cowley’s Trio, however, has a very different appeal; there is less improvisation though there is always a lot of interaction between the members of the trio. But Neil Cowley’s music has a wide appeal, particularly through its rhythmic approach and the building up of climaxes, and is a perfect start for people who want to explore jazz. It’s also great fun!

    • Yes, I should have mentioned the introductions. It was great to hear a musician fully aware that what he was doing would need some explanation, especially to a predominantly jazz audience. He was admirably modest about his own skills – which are considerable – choosing, rather, to enthuse about the composers. None of that diminishes my doubts, however. I realise that on the surface a pianist playing a transcription of the encore Keith Jarrett played at his Koln Concert might seem no different from playing a fugue by Bach or a Nocturne by Chopin, but there remains something fundamentally strange about it to me. De Greef said something telling at the beginning. He said he had been approached to “perform” the Koln Concert, and observed “Jarrett was not going to repeat it”. Well, can you imagine Jarrett replaying the Koln concert? Maybe studying the transcription that De Greef held up for us to see, just to remind himself of what he had made up on the spur of the moment in 1975? Yep, the absurdity of that scenario is kind of difficult to ignore. De Greef, quite rightly, seemed uncomfortable with simply mimicking Koln too so most sensibly suggested getting various contemporary composers to submit pieces inspired by Jarrett. So why, when he had baulked at the original idea, did he play for us a transcription of that Koln encore? And why play Jarrett’s interpretation of Someone To Watch Over Me. If I want to hear Jarrett’s take on that Gershwin tune I can put on the CD. What I missed on Thursday night was how De Greef would interpret the song. But maybe his intense study of Jarrett’s music has left him so in awe of the man that he doesn’t feel able to offer his own version. That, to me, is to completely misunderstand what jazz is. It is not classical music with a bit more rhythm. It’s a completely different species of music, involving different processes. That’s my theory, anyway.

  2. A number of people I spoke to after the gig had a very different outlook on the first half – they weren’t particularly enthusiastic about the original compositions but loved the Jarrett transcriptions. I enjoyed both sides – hearing those ‘less jazz’ original pieces isn’t what I’m used to and it was good to be exposed to something a bit out of the ordinary (I really liked that ‘Sonata VIII’), and listening to Ivo play transcriptions was interesting too. I think the Jarrett pieces may have been chosen predominantly to relieve the ‘straight jazz’ fans and act as a contrast from the rest of the set…


  1. Birmingham Jazz » Blog Archive » Review of Robert Mitchell 3io and Ivo de Greef

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