Pianist Matt Mitchell
's music can be appreciated on a number of levels. It's remarkably cerebral, on the one hand, with a conceptual apparatus that sometimes verges on the impenetrable; yet there are also moments in which the many moving parts of his compositions come together in ways that are quite emotionally powerful. And then there's simply the element of wonder: the "how does he do it?" factor. Mitchell himself asserts that the music on Phalanx Ambassadors
, his latest release, is "pretty definitively the most challenging music I've ever written for a band, ever," which means the listener should be prepared to be provoked, mystified and dazzled, perhaps all at once.
After a number of recent recordings that featured small groups, such as the quartet formation for his sprawling double album Vista Accumulation
(Pi Recordings, 2015), Mitchell went with a much larger ensemble for 2017's A Pouting Grimace
(Pi Recordings), including multiple percussionists and unusual instrumentation (Sara Schoenbeck's bassoon, Scott Robinson
's bass saxophone and Katie Andrews' harp, among others) that allowed him to emphasize texture and sonority alongside the structural complexity of the compositions. On Phalanx Ambassadors
he's split the difference, in a way: it's just a quintet, but guitarist Miles Okazaki
and vibraphonist Patricia Brennan
are frequently employed so as to bring out the music's color and nuance. Brennan, bassist Kim Cass
and drummer Kate Gentile
were all present on A Pouting Grimace
, and one can't help but think that their extensive familiarity with Mitchell's demanding vision is pivotal to his current record's successes as well.
Mitchell's complicated rhythmic proclivities are evident throughout the album. The pulse-quickening lead track, "Stretch Goal," is an addictive piece of music, with a manic energy driven by Gentile's frenetic drumming. Fueled by an exceptionally intricate melody introduced in tandem by Mitchell and Okazaki, the music has a loop-like quality that suggests it could continue indefinitely, with improvisations from each of the five members crucial in determining the piece's contours. "Taut Pry" and "Zoom Romp" continue in this vein, as Okazaki's fuzzed-out guitar gives these tracks an almost-rock feel, although occasional rhythmic displacements prevent them from becoming too conventional. There are ideas galore in these too-brief piecesboth last under two minutes. But they're essential in exhibiting Mitchell's affinity for groove and rhythm, an under-appreciated aspect of his aesthetic.
The succeeding cuts return to familiar terrain for Mitchell: slowly unfolding pieces that reveal their essence indirectly, through suggestion and abstraction. They're not nearly as immediate in their impact as "Stretch Goal," but they reward repeated encounters precisely for that reason, as the beauty of the music is found in the subtle architectural features that emerge as it evolves. One doesn't exactly get a secure foothold with a piece like "Phasic Haze Ramps," but it does possess a logic, albeit an unusual one. There's also enough fluidity in the track's composed aspects to make room for improvisation; they're not solos exactly, but rather episodic moments in which the musicians can develop ideas independently and in conversation while still remaining somehow connected to the group as a whole. The mystery here is how well it holds together; what should by all accounts descend into chaos steadfastly refuses to do so.
The album does at times have the feel of two different recordings, with the more direct appeal of "Stretch Goal" and "Zoom Romp" existing in some tension with the expansive, oblique musical language of "Phasic Haze Ramps." But the album's penultimate track, "Be Irreparable," may be the key to resolving the tension, as it effectively merges the two modes of the album. It begins with another maddeningly tricky theme and a somewhat amorphous shapebut it gradually, almost imperceptibly, takes form into something more approachable, with an urgent rhythmic center and an insistent groove that allows it ultimately to connect on both an intellectual and a visceral level. Phalanx Ambassadors
may indeed be the most challenging music Mitchell's made to date. But it wouldn't surprise anyone if this relentlessly innovative pianist surpasses himself yet again with whatever he's got in store for the near future.