Robert Mitchell’s Panacea
Pizza Express Jazz Club, London
A cure for all ills maybe, a moveable feast perhaps, a chamber ensemble that constantly reinvents itself for sure, and one that grows with pianist Robert Mitchell’s compositions as its constant without a doubt. On this occasion a unique version of the pianist’s long running larger band the septet Panacea took to the stage for the ongoing F-IRE Festival, special as Soweto Kinch and Iain Ballamy here played together live on stage for the first time.

The stellar saxophonists featured in a front-line along with the supremely agile Cuban violinist Omar Puente in a band that also comprised underrated singer Deborah Jordan, electric bassist Tom Mason switching to double bass in the second set, and the talented drummer, new to me, Laurie Lowe, playing meta-funkified broken beats with great feel and an inspiring drive.

Mitchell was debuting new material in the second part of this exceptional gig, with material from his new Invocation suite, pieces that come with titles such as ‘A Song for Alice’ and ‘The Stargazer’ following a more familiar first set that included ‘Aura’ from Panacea’s 2010 Edition records album The Cusp.

It was fascinating to witness Soweto in this situation, opening out to push himself beyond his comfort zone at times as his ferociously scalding alto sax sound dug in hard against drums for a brief foray in the first half, before melting into the ensemble, as Ballamy whose new Food album comes out next month, delicately teased out the nuances in Mitchell’s writing.

Jordan works in the ensemble more like a flautist than a singer at times because words don’t seem to matter so much in her approach, and her particularly velvety timbre floats high and low with wavery swooping and soaring following the fast flowing lines of the material. Mitchell’s instrumental writing is an absorbing language  sometimes impossible to fully understand as it’s so immersive, at other times as plain as the nose on your face, capable of connecting on a visceral level via steamrolling rhythms or clear-as-crystal harmonic devices, running along into a new exciting sense of abstraction.

Last time I heard him he was in a busier dramatic context, burning the house down with Matana Roberts at the Vortex two years ago with Seb Rochford at the back spurring the pair on, a flood of ideas developing in front of you but more free improv-inclined as is the Chicagoan’s general approach.

Here with his own charts there was a detailed improvising roadmap laid out that allowed for only a brief soloing detour towards the end of the first set when Puente dazzled with a baroque cadenza. Puente’s pungent harmonic grasp and speed of thought is perfect for Mitchell, and the two manage to offset the potentially dominating massive attack from the saxophones. Ballamy’s role was like that of counsellor, whispered textures on soprano, wise words on tenor; Kinch the firestarter: lit up and aflame, a formidable double act.

Mitchell will be back at Georgia Mancio’s ReVoice festival later this month at the club when he’s paired with the soulful Jhelisa Anderson. But at the Dean Street basement spot on a dripping wet Friday evening in the Soho streets above Panacea was just what any rainmaker worth their salt would have ordered.

The pianist who has deftly navigated a very distinctive path from the MBASE of J-Life and Quite Sane days to his more club-oriented 3io more recently showed just what he can do with the fine new material.

Kinch came more to the fore in the second half providing wave after wave of a new means of attack. Early next year he will release and tour his new much anticipated The Legend of Mike Smith album based around the concept of the seven deadly sins, a wide ranging project involving spoken word, rap and brand new compositions. London Jazz Festival audiences will receive a preview of some of the new stuff at the Albany next month.

Panacea has moved up a gear with this new material, and this version of the band provided a scintillating early glimpse into a new creative chapter in Mitchell’s career as a composer. It’s almost as if he’s coming into his prime.

Stephen Graham

Robert Mitchell pictured above
Further F-IRE Festival dates, all at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London, include Oriole & Menino Josue (Sunday 7 October), Ivo Neame Octet (8 Oct), Chambr & Eyes of a Blue Dog (19 Oct), and Roller Trio & The Beguilers (20 Oct)