“The Many Faces of Red Mitchell” is perhaps a more descriptive title for the great bassist’s recently released album What I Am. For those of us conditioned by his work with the likes of Andre Previn on all those jazzified show tunes albums or the Gerry Mulligan Quartet on the Paris Concert to identify the man with his signature instrument, his versatility here may come as something of a surprise. It’s perhaps even a complete revelation to not only hear him playing bass, but also handling piano and vocals as well—vocals and music he has written himself. Who knew?
What I Am was recorded back in 1978 in the midst of the musician’s 24-year voluntary exile to Sweden as a political protest against what he saw as the U.S. “institutionalization of violence and racism” in the ’60s. As explained in the booklet that accompanies the new album, he had become enchanted with the social climate in Sweden years earlier when, at age 27, he was touring with a group of musicians including Billie Holiday. There he found a vibrant musical scene ripe with outlets for an American expatriate and only returned to the U.S. in 1992.
What I Am not only demonstrates Mitchell’s versatility, it also shows him working in a variety of contexts. On some tunes, like the title number which opens the album, he plays solo piano and sings, on others he plays in various combinations from trio to quintet with members of Communication, the ensemble he put together to work with while in Sweden.
Of the dozen tracks on the album, eight are Mitchell originals; two of these are short snippets he calls “micro-thoughts.” Two pieces are by pianist Goran Strandberg, and there are two standards, “Autumn in New York” and Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.”
The ensemble tracks offer some truly impressive work. Stranberg’s “Avsked,” which means ‘parting,’ and “Tango Magnolia” feature a trio with the composer on piano, Mitchell on bass, and Rune Carlsson on drums. The Ellington tune adds Nisse Sandstrom on tenor sax. Mitchell’s “Talking” adds the trumpet of Bosse Broberg to flesh out the quintet. Broberg joins with Mitchell on piano for an elegant duet on “Autumn in New York.”
The solo tracks were recorded in Mitchell’s apartment and there is almost a kind of do-it-yourself quality about them. They seem very casual. For example, when he started taping his “Now What Are We Gonna Do,” his dog, Lady joined in, and he thought it would be nice to keep it on the recording as an introduction. The title song is the musician’s attempt to define himself, both musically and in terms of personality. He does a bit of scatting and even a little whistling. It includes an extensive and varied set of names cited as musical influences, names as diverse as Carl Perkins and Bird, but mostly jazz greats. While as a vocalist he is a great bassist, there is an emotional honesty in his singing that makes up for anything lackluster in the performance.
Emotional honesty is also the hallmark of Mitchell the lyricist. Whether it is in the advice to his son about energy resources in “The Sun and the Water” or his sermon on protecting one’s reputation in “Now What Are We Gonna Do,” his sincerity is clear. And as he says in a little poem at the end of the liner notes:
“As a writer and a bassist
I can pick my work and hack it.
And my puns may be the basest,
But profundity’s my racket.”
He is a lyricist with something to say.