Robert Mitchell and Randolph Matthews – 25 April Front Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London


In a brand-new collaboration, British leading edge improvising musicians, pianist and composer Robert Mitchell and vocalist Randolph Matthews, played to a large and diverse audience at the free Friday Tonic session in the Front Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall.

“Have you ever seen a bird turn into a helicopter?” Matthews asked the intrigued audience, in his introduction to an extended version of the 1965 Beatles song, ‘Norwegian Wood’, which incorporated Matthews’ story of walking down a familiar London street, then finding himself in a wood fetching bread from a cottage wherein he found the beautiful Diana. This question serves as a good metaphor for how Mitchell and Matthews took an eclectic mix of numbers – from jazz standards such as Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’ from 1944 to folk-rock and pop tunes from the 1960s and 1980s, and put their own imaginative, modern stamp on them.

The duo gave an inspired interpretation of The Stranglers hit baroque-pop tune ‘Golden Brown’ with Matthews’ beatboxing making a refreshing change to the harsher percussion of a drum kit. Quickly switching from soulful falsetto to bass registers which created a Bobby McFerrin-like polyphonic effect, he then built up more vocal layers using a loop pedal, providing a complimentary accompaniment to Mitchell’s attentive piano playing of palpable emotional depth.

Matthews effortlessly set up the groove of the well-known bass line to Miles Davis’ ‘All Blues’, but his simulation of double bass pizzicato was unconvincing and his repetitively loud, distorting vocals detracted from Mitchell’s extraordinary finger-whirling solos and tapping of the wood inside the open grand piano to conga-like effect. The natural sound of a real double bass would have been preferable here, and the music started to sound slightly mechanical and predictable (the ‘bird’ had flown).

At a free event such as this in a room full of countless distractions, it can be difficult to pick up on the subtleties of any performance, but this charismatic duo’s set was assured, rhythmically tight and fun, highlighted by a mother and her young son dancing in the background.

– Gemma Boyd