Pianist Matt Mitchell has developed a reputation for playing with some of the most notable in jazz and improvised music: Tim Berne, John Hollenbeck, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Darius Jones, Dan Weiss, Anna Webber, Mario Pavone, and Steve Coleman among many others. He even had a stint with prog-rock group Thinking Plague. Perhaps that latter group, as well as label-mate Weiss, are appropriate jumping-off points to consider A Pouting Grimace.
His third effort on Pi Recordings (a label known for quality over quantity), the album features a 13-piece lineup (including Kate Gentile, Ches Smith, Dan Weiss, Anna Webber, Jon Irabagon, and Sara Schoenbeck) conducted by Tyshawn Sorey. I’ll admit a fondness for the big-band approach, which has been making something of a comeback lately with superb recent releases from Weiss, Anthony Braxton, Darcy James Argue, Taylor Ho Bynum, and Nathan Hubbard. But unlike the swing-oriented large ensembles of the past, Mitchell joins his contemporaries in offering a knotty, complex set of tracks with more than a few nods to modern classical, as well as jazz.
For instance, brim is a nearly 7-minute romp through a labyrinthine and shifting theme, reminiscent of Terry Riley rather than Ellington. Despite an ostensibly minimalist structure (the repetitions are apparent though variations thereof abound), the mere fact that the entire ensemble contributes their own distinct patterns sets Mitchell’s compositional approach apart. That, and a few free-jazz sounding breaks to release built-up tension. On the other hand, gluts features Mitchell leading a traditional piano trio playing markedly non-traditional music. At the halfway point, the track shifts to a woodwind interlude, followed by a finale that combines both lineups.
Another representative offering is heft, only slightly over 4 minutes in length, but moving from a dramatic, bassy opening to a controlled sax-blowout to a reprise of the opening theme. Between the longer tracks are a handful of shorter pieces, from 15 seconds to almost two minutes, which feature Mitchell mostly unaccompanied on synth and electronics.
A Pouting Grimace is a dense, information-rich exploration that will keep the listener engaged through multiple sittings. There is a lot to unpack in this album-of-the-year candidate.