Pianist Matt Mitchell brings a steady cerebralism to every project that he is a member of, whether as composer, side-man, or leader. His recent work with Dan Weiss, Tim Berne, Anna Webber, and Brian Krock, to just name a few, are stellar examples of what he is capable of in various roles. Thus, when he releases a new album, giving it a listen or two is immediately on the agenda.
Unlike 2017’s A Pouting Grimace, which was a large-ensemble effort, here Mitchell pares it down to Miles Okazaki on guitar, Patricia Brennan on vibes and marimba, Kim Cass on double bass, the great Kate Gentile on drums, and of course himself on piano. But even with a group of this size, Mitchell coaxes out an unusually dense and rich sound.
Phalanx Ambassadors hits the ground running with Stretch Goal, a propulsive piece lead by Mitchell and Gentile with Cass giving his bass a brutal workout. Mitchell provides busy chording and tense runs, joined by Brennan in the latter. This is followed by the short Taut Pry, where Okazaki’s off-kilter approach is reminiscent of Thinking Plague, a group in which Mitchell was a member.
As the album progresses and the tracks get longer and more diverse, the tempo and intensity ramps down a notch or two. Mitchell has surrounded himself with formidable partners and each musician is given room to explore. Another highlight is Be Irreparable, which has a rhythmic pattern so involved that just listening to Mitchell, Cass, and Gentile work their way through it would be enough. But Brennan joins in with contrapuntal lines, leading to an information-rich but controlled apex.
The hardest thing about trying to digest this recording is placing it in some form of historical context. Modern creative jazz with classical etudes and informed by progressive rock? Perhaps. Regardless, it is a compelling and singular workout for the ears. Comparisons are difficult but recent big-band releases by Weiss and Braxton are good places to start.
Prediction: Phalanx Ambassadors will score high on many best-of-2019 lists, including mine.