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Jumpin’ In

Matt Mitchell’s Førage

—Point of Departure

Jumpin’ In runs quar­terly in Point of Depar­ture, Bill Shoemaker’s online music jour­nal. It’s a priv­i­lege to be on Bill’s ros­ter — along­side colum­nists Art Lange and Stu­art Broomer and reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tors Kevin White­head and John Litweiler, among many oth­ers. This col­umn appeared in June 2017.

Among the many strands of cre­ative music, mag­i­cal think­ing must occupy its own highly ambigu­ous space: music that feels, even after time and repeated lis­ten­ing, like a secret path­way, impos­si­ble to pin down, where the con­nec­tions between the ratio­nal and the fan­tas­tic are blurry at best.

Mag­i­cal think­ing,” in this case, cer­tainly isn’t meant as an insult. I’ve cribbed, and reworked, critic Adam Kirsch’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the idea in con­tem­po­rary let­ters –  where a writer may bend rules, or just plain make up stuff (in other words, lie) to allow him and his audi­ence “to coop­er­ate in chang­ing the nature of real­ity itself, in a way that can appear almost magical.”

In music, these are the records that plumb a pri­vate, par­tic­u­lar lan­guage, one person’s real­ity: to explore, in highly orig­i­nal and idio­syn­cratic ways, the nature of this instru­ment, or that musi­cal fan­tasy. Inevitably, these are solo events; this isn’t a col­lab­o­ra­tive way of working.

I’m think­ing of albums like Anthony Braxton’s For Alto (Del­mark, 1969) or Derek Bailey’s Solo Gui­tar (Incus, 1971) or Cecil Taylor’s Silent Tongues (Arista/Freedom, 1974), which, even after all these years, remain cre­ative music masterpieces.

The more I’ve lis­tened to pianist Matt Mitchell’s fas­ci­nat­ing new solo record­ing, Førage (Screw­gun), the more I’ve come to think of it in these terms. I will not speak to its ulti­mate suc­cess. (That is, quite sim­ply, to con­sider the ques­tion time will ask of any work of art: whether it will last, or not.) Førage, how­ever, seems to exist with­out nat­ural antecedents. Impro­vi­sa­tion is at the heart of its inner logic. But not only. Mitchell has used sax­o­phon­ist Tim Berne’s work to act upon, and react to, in a way that is won­der­fully imag­i­na­tive, and feels by the end like a grand, labyrinthine jour­ney out of Berne’s uni­verse and into some­thing alto­gether different.

Berne is of course, on one level, Mitchell’s boss. Mitchell has been a main­stay in Snakeoil, Berne’s excel­lent work­ing ensem­ble, since the early 2010s. Their first meet­ing is instruc­tive: Mitchell opened for Berne in 2009, per­form­ing an entire solo set of the older man’s music, rebuilt for a recital. “No one knows my music bet­ter than Matt,” Berne admit­ted recently. “He might know it even bet­ter than I do at this point.”

But let’s be clear: this isn’t a “Matt Mitchell-Plays-the-Music-of …” record. But it’s noth­ing like, say, a Paul Bley record either – in the way the Canadian-born pianist put Carla Bley’s and Annette Peacock’s songs at the heart of his most inven­tive (read: mag­i­cal) music-making. Open, To Love (ECM, 1972), his first solo record­ing, is still the supreme instance of this way of working.

Førage barely sounds like a Tim Berne record at all. Often, you’ll need to be an expert in the minute shades and sliv­ers of the saxophonist’s writ­ing to catch a glimpse. Førage feels at first freely impro­vised; it only seems loosely related to Berne’s book. Early reviews and the record’s press kit have homed in on the key adjec­tives. Mitchell, it’s been writ­ten, “devises mash-ups” and “new angles,” “refract­ing,” “recon­fig­ur­ing,” “refash­ion­ing,” and “reimag­in­ing” Berne’s music.

Mitchell has, in fact, shared some of the road maps – “CLØÙDĒ,” for one, is an amal­gam of pieces from Snakeoil (ECM, 2012) and The Shell Game (Thirsty Ear, 2001), while “ŒRBS” takes a head from Snakeoil and an intro­duc­tion from Shadow Man (ECM, 2013). Mitchell turns over a line and tum­bles into another. Stitch­ing it all together would require a schematic of some substance.

Yet, no mat­ter how abstract (or opaque) this feels, it rings true – to any­one who’s ever embed­ded him­self deeply into some­one else’s music. We all do this. When we lis­ten, when we bur­row into our favorite work, we bring it inside, inter­nal­ize it, and then begin to con­struct, recon­struct, and decon­struct it for our­selves – out loud, in our inner ear, in our own par­tic­u­lar, immensely eclec­tic sound uni­verse. This is what we do when we sing in the shower. This is what we do when we day­dream about music. This is when our intel­lect and our imag­i­na­tion become an engine with enor­mous power. I say this fun­da­men­tally as a lis­tener. But if you play an instru­ment, I sus­pect the psy­chol­ogy might be deployed in sim­i­lar ways.

The entire appear­ance of Førage fuels this fan­tasy. The titles (“PÆNË,” “TRĀÇĘŚ,” “ÀÄŠ,” “RÄÅY,” “SÎÏÑ”) deepen the impres­sion: accents that feel mean­ing­less on the one hand, and fan­tas­tic on the other. The per­son­nel is spelled dif­fer­ently every time: Tìm, Tīm, Bernë, Bernę, Mått Mitchelł, and pro­ducer Davîd Torñ. It’s part of the effect, stretch­ing lan­guage. So, too, I would sug­gest is the whole Screw­gun oper­a­tion. Berne’s seem­ingly dor­mant label is back as if it were the turn of the cen­tury – the coarse, indus­trial card­board sleeve, the Steven Byram design. Unwit­tingly, this is an exten­sion of Mitchell’s elab­o­rate, and sur­real, jour­ney into Berne’s book.

If given the resources – as a musi­cian, as an artist, as a pro­ducer – isn’t this how we’d all do things? Locate your­self within a body of work you admire. Then jet­ti­son any­thing mat­ter of fact. Before this, Tim Berne’s writ­ing wouldn’t have felt like a nat­ural fit for a piano recital: yet here it is.

This is among the many rea­sons why Førage is so enjoy­able. Pre-listening – spot­ting the minute, light-speed shifts in the Berne canon – isn’t required. Mitchell trans­ports you onto his own plat­form – this churn­ing, rum­bling, ten­der, stop-start por­trait, this mag­i­cal rela­tion­ship between a man and a body of music.