Robert Mitchell - Piano/Keyboards

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“I think there is potential in a lot of different manufacturers for finding magical pianos,” says Mitchell. “Every manufacturer seems to have a time when they have a run of exceptional instruments, like the Yamaha in the studio at 33 Records that I recorded The Greater Good album on. Then there’s that amazing Steinway at the Cambridge Jazz Club at Kettle’s Yard.”

Mitchell’s initial contact with the piano, however, was with a decidedly more humble instrument. “There was an old piano in the house that we were living in and I used to scratch around on that. My first music lessons were with a music/singing teacher who lived just round the corner, where from the age of six I followed the classical piano Associated Board exams. Milada Robertson was an extraordinary women who put on regular concerts at her house and at the time I thought that this was typical of all music teachers. She had this large detached house where there were at least five pianos, two of which were in the main room. So you often had lessons in front of other people! Twice a year she would hold concerts that would go through most of the pupils – from beginners to advanced – it was very intimidating but I got this thing right from the start about being comfortable performing.”

Clearly Mitchell was making progress and his parents bought a new piano. “It was a Baby Bentley – a small upright – this was my first real piano.” After doing his O and A level music and doing the odd performance at school assemblies, Mitchell moved on to the City University to study music. “It was all classical. But the best thing about the course was the connection it had with the Guildhall, so that students would be able to get conservatoire lessons which was really important. I remember that the practice rooms had Yamaha pianos, which were quite variable and you had people booking the same room because they knew that this was the piano and you had to be really on the money to book that particular room. The lecture halls had Steinways – which were of course fantastic.”

Having completed his degree, he returned to the Baby Bentley. “But that had been played to death and my father was working on his performance in Carmen Jones at the Old Vic, so he needed a good piano to keep his accompanists happy. He had had the Bentley for 18 years and by the end it had been re-felted several times. When it had to leave the house it was a very sad day – there was green felt all over the base of the piano. As the repair guy said ‘there is really nothing else we can do’.”

Mitchell’s father bought a Reid upright and Mitchell remembers the piano being played all the time. “It was good for me, because I was able to measure my own

ability against the level of these professional accompanists.” After leaving home Mitchell moved into a flat. “Being able to practice and being able to work late can become an issue with neighbours. So you start to look at keyboards and headphones.” One of Mitchell’s early acquisitions had been a Roland A80 – “I blew quite a bit of my grant on that,” he says. “It’s a very heavily weighted keyboard, with literal weighting as opposed to today’s more highly developed systems, which has no sound in it and you’d use midi to connect it to whatever. It is also quite noisy and clunky. I remember the trip it took with me to Sudan. This keyboard weighed about 25kg – and that’s not including the case. It never went anywhere else with me after that! Cramped living and serious stair issues meant that a lighter and leaner instrument became a necessity. “I changed to the Yamaha P60 which is remarkably light for what it can do. It’s also an incredibly close representation of the acoustic instrument. It doesn’t travel, and spends its life at home. When I’m playing it, I’m dreaming that I am on an acoustic piano!”

Mitchell also owns a Korg m3 synthesiser and a Nord Electro 2. “The Nord is amazing. It impersonates a Rhodes and Wurlitzer so well – it also does organ and piano. I often use it if there is no access to those classic electric keyboards.” Mitchell also has an M Audio controller and other sound making synths that you plug into a keyboard. “In my band Panacea, I use everything that is required by the music, which invariably involves these keyboards and the accompanying electronics.” Mitchell also has an acoustic trio and a duo with Cuban violinist Omar Puente.

I’d heard a story relating to Mitchell’s solo album Equinox. “It was premiered in a power station, which was quite an interesting building to say the least; not at all built for something like that and with amazing reverberation – very strange things go on in there, which combined with such a piano (around 90 grands’ worth of Steinway!) was quite magical. I had to go away and re-write various bits and pieces because there were amazing things that this piano could do. I was also removing a fair amount of writing, just to let the music breathe.”

Mitchell’s very buoyant about his trio winning an award for the best jazz album of the year ( The Greater Good) from Radio 1 DJ Gilles Peterson. He’s also very upbeat about his new living arrangements. “I now have more space and I’m looking to buy a good instrument to bring life into the house. Nothing beats getting your hands on the real thing,” he says, with the excitement of a young child on his way to the toy shop. “I’m really looking forward to the developments being made with Baby Grands and have recently been talking to both Bluthner and Steinway – I’ll keep you posted.”

This is an extract from Jazzwise Issue #130 – to read the full article click here to subscribe and receive a limited edition jazz photograph...