First published in 2017. A significant milestone in the pianist and composer’s distinguished career, a work that takes its inspirations in freedom, groove, power, grace, symbiosis, Ubuntu, trust, love and loss ROBERT MITCHELL explains the origins and background to his groundbreaking A Vigil For Justice, a Vigil For Peace.
The most thought provoking and moving part of the album is the tribute to Debbie Purdy. How did you know Debbie, and why did you decide to write the tribute? I knew her through my long and continued association with the great Omar Puente, her husband. And in a professional sense as a musician who interacted with her as an agent in duo with Omar. Her positivity in spite of such difficult circumstances having long term multiple sclerosis were beyond inspirational. And as we live longer more circumstances will come to light for the UK courts to deal with in the difficult area of ending suffering for such chronic conditions while not criminalising those who are left to potentially make such an important decision. So I think the appreciation of the work she did to highlight the archaic state of the law here will only increase. It was the least I could do.
A Vigil For Justice, a Vigil For Peace seems to have powerful liturgical elements couched in a secular language. That’s not an easy thing to do. Do you think people are really in tune with their spiritual side; is that part of the need provided? It is more spiritual than liturgical for me. I mean both from the viewpoint of being vigilant but also its meaning of deeply watching something that is potentially coming to an end. Among many things in these times justice and peace certainly need constant vigilance. I think we are kept distracted from our spirituality by too much news, biased for the needs of whichever corporation is putting it out and by too much technology that is designed to hypnotise and not educate and inspire. I would love to contribute to helping to bring a better balance to this state of affairs in any way I can; and both the album in its inspiration and it being on vinyl (with all its inherent rituals), are a part of that need.
Can you describe where you’re coming from in terms of poetic inspiration and what element of poetry inspires you most when it comes to interpreting it musically as well as separately? I’m thinking of a number of innovations in this area you’re probably familiar with, say Stan Tracey and Michael Horovitz, the poem on A Love Supreme probably the greatest of them all… maybe you’d give an overview of your personal journey with the genre? I am inspired through the prism of lyrics that are poetic and can stand alone, and poems that have been set to music. Obviously we are exposed to a number of poems in school. But my father’s songs were a starting point for me to attempt to express through lyrics. His love of Carmen Jones, Show Boat, Cats, etc. meant I was exposed to his rehearsing of Oscar Hammerstein II, Tim Rice, PG Wodehouse, etc, and through jazz Ira Gershwin, Jon Hendricks, Betty Carter, Billy Strayhorn. Going the other way anything from traditional Haiku, Zuni spiritual poems, to Claudia Rankine and Warsan Shire. For me, the inspiration will spring from rhythm, rhyme, metaphor, and any original approach to imagery that expands the imagination. Poems whose lifeblood is eternal hope striving through trying times.
Tell me about the background of Thami Hlabangana, one of the narrators of the album. New name to me. How did your collaboration come about? Thami was introduced to me by producer Miles Bould. Originally from Zimbabwe he is a brilliant MC and poet and recorded great takes of these poems very quickly. They used to be in a group together a while ago. I would love to perform with him live but he doesn’t do it that often and I am still working on persuading him! In the meantime look out for some videos featuring his great narration.
You go way back with HKB Finn, don’t you? I recall hearing you play Brussels with him at the Jazz Marathon festival too many years ago now to comfortably recall, actually thankfully not that many! How did you first describe the project to HKB and what do you think he brings most to it? Yes I used to be in a band with HKB years ago and he has guested on a previous album of mine The Cusp. I described the background to the album, sent the poem and he came over to record, simples! He brings a great sensitivity, range and lightness of spirit to this project.
How long has your Epiphany trio been around? What is it that you like most about the way you play together? It is a very recent thing for me being born last year. I love the consistent challenge to up the risk-taking, the quality and clarity of improvisational narrative, and moving towards including more pieces of completely improvised music.
Have you worked with producer Miles Bould before? How did he come on board and why choose him in the first place? What do you think he brought most of all to the project? I have worked with Miles Bould in his fantastic band Usonic for a number of years and have taken part in the recording of an earlier project of Yolanda Charles, The Deep Mo, in which he played drums. I asked him to take part as he is a hugely experienced percussionist with the likes of Sting, Robert Palmer and Billy Ocean who also is heavily into fusion and electric jazz. He has worked with numerous brilliant producers and I was led to wonder if he did much himself! He brought a great clarity, levity and a brilliant scrutiny to capturing our sound at the highest quality. I feature on his great new album Tribute and he himself features on a brilliant new ECM album by the superb Dominic Miller.
In terms of the album message it seems you are ‘waiting’ and ‘hoping’ against the odds for social and political change. That wait/hoping when and how did it begin and how, what needs to happen, will it end? I think it is a frustration that has grown partly through living as a son, and husband of nurses in the NHS. It is of course connected to the way society here is structured and badly imbalanced. That has not happened in isolation and is connected to my parents coming here in the 1950s and 60s: their hopes and fears. And as a parent myself I see opportunities for education, good health and the arts becoming ever harder to access for far too many. What needs to happen is first talking about this as often as possible especially with those who have a different viewpoint from my own and putting our creative energies towards implementing the best ideas. That amazing thing that the Internet is capable of – of being the most incredible forum – is slowly helping great ideals spread globally. We need to take part and contribute via our skills. I don’t think politics can best benefit from just a proportion of a population being active only on polling day. I hope it ends with yes a hard fought but long lasting unity across people, nations, cultures, religions and approaches to living on this one planet we have to share at this present time.
How do you see poetry operating differently to say using a hip-hop style and why does it attract you more for this project? I see it operating in the very same way but just at a different frequency range. It is a shared root love of the power of language, and the need for the words to stand forth without being sung that attracted me this time around. I had not done it before to this degree, and with the nature of the inspiration for this album, the subject matter etc, I thought mostly the solo narrator and the internal rhythm of poetry would be something to explore in a larger way. I wanted the words to stand alone and to have the weight of meaning dictate the direction, and the music to sonically echo the space in which you reflect on the words.
The power in the lyrics seems most expressed in ‘The Migration.’ Is the role of the artist an observer of world events as well as an interpreter of them? Can art take the place of a helplessness as tragic events unfold? I think we need more artists to observe, interpret, reflect and also be involved in the creation of solutions to the challenges that we face. As a descendant of people who were stripped of so many freedoms as slaves – language, religion, family ties etc – art survived and provided a vital help. It has been a lifeblood for many cultures going through an equivalent tragedy throughout history. Culture is the ultimate connector, the eternal therapy, and the clearest mirror in which historical events are passed on. So, yes it can take place of a helplessness. But I do think jazz, music and art in general can definitely play a bigger role in shaping a better future and really ought to contribute much more towards this right now.