George Mitchell's versatility shows on CD 'Play Zone'
"That's the kind of musician I aspire to be," says George Mitchell. "Somebody who does a variety of things."
So there is a lot of variety on Mitchell's new CD, "Play Zone." A Portland native, the keyboard player and composer has toured with pop diva Diana Ross for 20 years. But when he's in town, about nine months of the year, Mitchell performs nightly with various jazz groups, each playing a different style.
One night he'll crank up the Hammond B-3 for some greasy blues with Patrick Lamb, the next he's playing a 9-foot grand piano in the Benson Hotel Lobby Lounge. He plays funky licks with the Jake Kot Band and prayerful chords with Marilyn Keller and Ron Steen on Sundays at Augustana Lutheran Church. And the music on his CD ranges from a lush, pensive ballad to burning, Coltrane-ish hard bop as well as jazz fusion, straight bebop and a swinging, 1960s organ romp.
Beneath that variety lies a remarkable consistency, though, based on his deep musicality, rhythmic sense and bright, articulate voice. He always sounds like himself, with rich chord voicings and a lyrical touch. And Mitchell stamps his own compositions with an even more consistent individual vision.
But you have to listen carefully for it.
Mitchell constructs memorable and tuneful melodies supported by sophisticated harmonic structures that give them gorgeous body and depth. It's a subtle effect, shaping from under the surface, like a root structure that supports soaring branches.
Maybe that's his career in a nutshell, too.
A self-effacing ensemble player, Mitchell, 46, would much rather talk about the nuts and bolts of music than his career.
"I just want to keep on playing swinging jazz with great players and go from there," he says. That may explain the six-year gap between "Play Zone" and his previous CD.
"I get caught up in performing and other stuff (including studio work and teaching), and I don't really focus on documenting my work as much as I should," he says. He's also content to be a sideman -- a role that allows him more time to compose. The work on "Play Zone" reveals increased emotional power and lyrical beauty since his previous CD.
Even as a composer, though, Mitchell considers the other musicians -- and how best to reach his listeners.
"When you're writing music," he explains, "you have to think about who's going to play it. The composition has to speak to them," he adds.
"And the nice thing about this music, since I work with so many different players, is that it's not so complex that we can't do it without a ton of rehearsals. That's important if people are going to be able to hear it."
That's really Mitchell's ultimate goal anyway -- to present his music. He may have gone about it in a quiet way, but he's never lost himself amid the variety, and his vision shines clearly even from within a team.