Shirley Smart & Robert Mitchell
Discus 116CD
Available formats: CD/DL


“The music itself is often very beautiful, and the album can be enjoyed for this alone, but it also makes serious musical and political points that demand a deeper level of appreciation. As such it represents a triumph for both musicians.” – Ian Mann THE JAZZ MANN


This duo, and the resulting album developed out of conversations between Robert and Shirley whilst working on Robert’s Invocation project in 2014.

Their discussions explored the varied paths of their respective backgrounds, and different relationships of all aspects of those musical paths to improvisation. Both have a shared classical training, in which the absence of an improvisation became both a frustration and source of inspiration. Part of the story of this album lies in their different forms of searching for this lost aspect of the classical tradition, and also the journey of embracing it in other musical forms.

Robert is long established as one of the UKs finest jazz pianists and composers, and finds expression also through the medium of poetry to explore themes of his background. He also debuts here as a narrator of his own poetry, focussing on a response to the Windrush scandal and tribute to his mum and the search for global peace.

Shirley spent many years in the Middle East, where she also became involved with both jazz and Middle Eastern regional traditions and their forms of improvisation. Since returning to the UK, she has established a formidable reputation as one of the most versatile and creative cellists on the scene, drawing on her various influences as a root and basis for her musical work.

Both artists are also highly involved in music education. Shirley is Head of Performance at City University. Robert is Jazz Piano Professor at Guildhall School Of Music and Drama.

This album brings together these different strands in each musician’s journey, linked through the dialogic act of improvisation, to explore and re-explore their pasts and present.

Shirley Smart – cello.
Robert Mitchell – piano, voice.


Pianist Robert Mitchell and cellist Shirley Smart have been collaborating for several years now, notably on the former’s Invocation and Epiphany 3 projects, and to hear them as a duo confirms the growth of an advanced creative entente. They cohere but each individual remains strikingly virtuosic. Mitchell’s flourish of harmony and metric complexity enable him to really present the keyboard as a miniature orchestra while the faultless articulation of Smart’s pizzicato and fleet basslines as well as the singing quality of her arco work lends her a notable expressive range, almost as if those techniques give her two distinct voices. Crucially, all of these elements are held in balance. On a repertoire that has classical, European folk and non-western resonances Mitchell and Smart uphold the lineage of the most successful duos insofar as there is a careful focus on structure as well as stylistic invention, meaning that they move stealthily from melody to solo, unison playing to call and response, affirmation to implication, splash of tonal colour to undercurrent of rhythm. The result is music that has a strong but spiky lyricism and a poetry based on both fragmentation and fluency, making it clear that Mitchell and Smart have helmed their ability as soloists with a disciplined focus to make this duo a partnership of equals. – Kevin Le Gendre, JAZZWISE

Given quite different career trajectories, Smart and Mitchell are like two comets pursuing their own orbits and flying in parallel for a short period of time. What each brings to this session is the experience of rich musical journeys. But there is also a warmth and elegance across the tunes on this set, which reflects the ease with which both players navigate multiple musical styles and which also belies the depth of passion that inspired the compositions. Mitchell, known not only for his work with F-IRE collective but the host of awards that he has garnered, is a pianist whose lightness and deftness of touch immediately draws the listener into the intimacy of his playing. This drawing in of the listener is further enhanced by the ways in which Mitchell discovers and develops attractive motifs that often belie the discordance and harmonic complexity he employs to accompany these. Smart comfortably mixes classical, jazz and Middle Eastern approaches to making music and is well-known as an innovative jazz cellist, with a long list of artists with whom she has played. On this recording, she provides both an ideal foil to Mitchell’s playing and a guide to encourage him to new musical terrains. Indeed, the balance between the players is as finely honed as the balance of musical styles that they blend across, and distil within, the tunes. The liner notes, and Mitchell’s two poems which receive settings in ‘The First Note’ (track 2) [about a world in which peace is permanent] and ‘A Son of Windrush Reflects’ (track 8) [in which Mitchell balances the pride that his Bajan mother has felt as a nurse in the NHS with the shameful treatment meted out by our government on the Windrush generation – ‘it took 135 years to unveil the Mary Seacole monument / Let’s hope it is not 135 more until the Windrush contribution is decently honoured with respectful portent…’], give background to the pieces in this set. As does Smart’s explanation of the tune ‘Anxieties’ (track 3) as ‘a bebop-ish line dissolving into a more modal Middle Eastern mawaal-style invocation.’ Just as the mix of musical styles is apparent in her playing, so her ability to speak Hebrew and Arabic and career that has criss-crossed academia in the Middle East gives her music a sensibility to diverging perspectives. The desire to find a balance between lived experiences does not mean the dilution of one experience or the negation of one by another, nor does it mean a sort of antipathetic fence-sitting; there are still plenty of reasons to be angry and to articulate this anger clearly – as Mitchell’s poems make clear. But it does suggest, particularly in our overly polarised age of social media ‘echo chambers’, that there is a need for dialogue and a need for calm statement of the effects and impact of bad political decisions. This balance extends to the music, and Mitchell has long been interested in what happens when a pianist only relies on one hand. For an instrument which is meant to provide either the rhythmic or harmonic heart of a jazz group, this feels an odd perspective. But it provides a freshness and challenge to the approach to developing tunes. Mitchell’s exploration of single-hand playing (the Bach piece, ‘Klavierstuke in A’, is an early example of single-hand playing, and Mitchells’ own ‘Zietgeist’, track 4) are not only fine examples of technical ability, but also invite Smart into the insides of the piece. Here she needs to fill the rhythmic and harmonic holes left by the missing hand. In such circumstances, it might be easy to over play, to hustle a bunch of notes that are not required just to fill the vacuum. And Smart is a player with extreme confidence in the gaps between notes and the caesura between themes who is able to navigate this challenge. Not only this, the classical inspirations (themes and tunes from CPE Bach and Liszt played with delicacy by Mitchell and accompanied by Smart discovering ways to improvise around the structures) segue delightfully and often unexpectedly into jazz or Middle Eastern phrasings. I think it worth heaping praise on the production of Spencer Cozens which not only captures the vitality of each players’ control of their instrument but also situates this in the stillness that surrounds them; there is no unnecessary bouncing and echo of sound, but nor is there muffling of the natural acoustics of each instrument. This is beautiful music. – Chris Baber, JAZZ VIEWS

““Zeitgeist²” is the début recording from the duo of cellist Shirley Smart and pianist Robert Mitchell, the ‘2’ in the title representing ‘squared’ rather than ‘second’ or ‘sequel’. The pair first met in 2013 when Smart worked with Mitchell on his large scale string / choral project “Invocation”, which was successfully premièred the following year with performances in Bournemouth and London. Discussions arising from this project revealed that both come from classical backgrounds whilst sharing interests in jazz, composition, improvisation, education (both hold prestigious teaching appointments) and political and social concerns. As a duo the pair have sought to blend aspects of the classical tradition with the art of improvisation. Both have found the lack of improvised content in classical music to be a source of frustration, but also a source of inspiration, as they attempt to revive this ‘lost aspect’ of the classical tradition. Smart’s comment in the album liner notes perhaps best summarises their approach most succinctly, speaking of “a shared interest in exploring improvisation in a variety of contexts, but without the need to separate them by genre, an approach which I think has infused both the choice of repertoire and the ways we reacted to it in our performances”. The album was recorded by Spencer Cozens at Steinway Studios in Grantham in January 2020, just before the outset of the pandemic, an event that has both delayed the release of the album, which had to be mixed remotely, and curtailed the duo’s intended live performances. Mitchell’s notes speak of the frustrations the pandemic has caused to professional musicians, in terms of both recordings and live work. The album was eventually officially launched with two live performances at London’s Vortex Jazz Club on 20th January 2022. With regard to material the programme features original compositions by both Mitchell and Smart in addition to pieces by Howard Skempton (born 1947) and CPE Bach (1714-88). Two of Mitchell’s pieces include him reciting his own poetry, these having been debuted at a concert organised by vocalist Georgia Mancio at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, London in October 2019, Mitchell’s first ever narration in front of a live audience. The new album commences with Smart’s composition “Opal”, which reveals the duo to be perfectly matched, the delicate melancholy of Smart’s bowing complemented by Mitchell’s lyricism at the piano. Classical discipline and technique is combined with the élan of jazz, particularly during the moments when Mitchell’s piano takes the lead, supported by Smart’s pizzicato cello bass lines. Mitchell’s “The First Note” features his speaking voice as he recites his own poem. The work “imagines a seemingly distant world where we have a global anthem, to mirror a peace we no longer question as permanent. A song not of nations, but of humanity”. Wishful thinking perhaps, but Mitchell’s words carry a powerful and universal message. Musically the piece features voice and cello only with Smart skilfully underpinning Mitchell’s narration. The poet praises her contribution, remarking “Shirley brilliantly set a sympathetic scene – in one take”. Smart spent several years in Israel, living in Jerusalem and absorbing the music and culture of the wider Middle East. Her piece “Anxieties” is described by its composer as “a short and simple piece that combines a bebop-ish line dissolving into a more modal Middle Eastern mawaal- style invocation”. She goes on to explain that given her involvement in both musical areas the juxtaposition feels very natural, and she praises cultural and social convergences in general. Musically it’s an intriguing piece, not quite as short or as simple as the composer suggests but a work full of diverse but convergent influences and packed with many delightful twists and turns. Smart again deploys both arco and pizzicato techniques as each musician slips seamlessly into a rhythmic role when the other is soloing. That said there is also plenty of vivacious dialogue with each player very much on an equal footing. “Zeitgeist” itself is an old Mitchell tune, written over a decade ago but hitherto unrecorded. The piece was originally inspired by a documentary series of the same name by the film maker and musician Peter Joseph. It was originally conceived as a piano piece for the left hand only, an area of music that has long held a fascination for Mitchell. His excellent 2013 solo piano album “The Glimpse” featured a collection of pieces for performance by the left hand only. On this performance of “Zeitgeist” the piano part remains left hand only. As befits a piece informed by environmental and political concerns the piece is sombre and reflective in mood with Mitchell’s deep piano sonorities matched by Smart’s melancholic and highly evocative bowing. Mitchell’s fascination with single hand piano techniques also finds expression in an arrangement of CPE Bach’s “Klavierstuck in A”, a piece originally written for performance by left or right hand alone. This version features Mitchell playing with both hands as he and Smart use the structure of the piece as a basis for improvisation. The counterpoint typical of the era is combined with vibrant joint improvisation, creating a performance that beguiles the listener. Mitchell’s liner notes speak of the importance of reviving the art of improvisation in classical music at all levels. The other ‘outside’ item is “For Catherine”, a tribute to the classical cellist Catherine Cormac written by the composer Howard Skempton. Mitchell was alerted to the piece by jazz pianist Pat Thomas and had previously performed it as part of his left hand only piano repertoire. Mitchell regards the work as a companion piece to “Klavierstuck” and refers to its “strong melody”, which serves as an equally powerful accompaniment figure for Smart’s cello improvisations. It’s a hauntingly beautiful piece that features some of the cellist’s most expressive arco playing and again features her deployment of the pizzicato technique during the piano led episodes. Mitchell’s “Inner Sanctum”, also referred to as “Inner Glimpse” in his liner notes, is an instrumental version of a song scheduled for a future release. It serves as a reminder to concentrate one’s thoughts and sense of purpose in spite of the “ever growing noise distractions” of the digital age and the resultant diminution of attention spans. Here Mitchell and Smart distil their thoughts into two and a half minutes of concentrated beauty, seemingly thinking as one. The album’s second poetic item is Mitchell’s “A Son of Windrush Reflects”, a tribute to his mother, who served as a nurse in the NHS for forty three years. It tells the story of her medical career and the racism she faced, from both the medical establishment and from certain ungrateful, racist patients. It also tackles the still topical subject of the Windrush scandal and represents a scathing attack on the current Tory government. The accompanying liner note is even more pointed and visceral. Mitchell’s political and poetic eloquence, his words delivered in impeccably enunciated English, is comparable to that of Linton Kwesi Johnson, even though the style of delivery, both musically and vocally, is very different. More than forty years after Johnson’s landmark album “Forces of Victory” and the track “Sonny’s Lettah” has that much really changed? Musically “A Son of Windrush Reflects” is another performance for voice and cello only, with Smart delivering another brilliantly empathic response, making effective use of both plucking and bowing techniques. Both “A Son of Windrush Reflects” and the earlier “The First Note” are featured in Mitchell’s forthcoming second poetry collection “City Of Sanctuary”. The album concludes with Smart’s “Mind’s Eye”, a piece that she describes as attempting to “capture that sense of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge referred to as the suspension of disbelief, or that place where one can step outside of current reality and see it from the outside”. Although she describes the piece as “reflective” the music features five plus minutes of intense musical interaction between cello and piano, with Smart again deploying both arco and pizzicato techniques. That Middle Eastern influence, of which she has spoken, is again apparent and is evident in both her bowed and plucked lines. “Zeitgeist²” represents an impressive piece of work from two of the UK’s leading performers on their respective instruments. Smart and Mitchell achieve a remarkable rapport, this is very much a partnership of equals working in tandem in pursuit of a common cause. The music covers a broad range of influences, successfully merging elements of jazz and Western classical music with the sounds of Smart’s beloved Middle East. I’m not usually a fan of spoken word on music albums but Mitchell’s recitations are highly effective and make very salient political points. Smart’s musical responses to his words are little short of brilliant and these voice / cello episodes must make an even greater emotional impact in live performance. The music itself is often very beautiful, and the album can be enjoyed for this alone, but it also makes serious musical and political points that demand a deeper level of appreciation. As such it represents a triumph for both musicians. – Ian Mann THE JAZZ MANN

It took a little time before my eyes and ears were opened by ROBERT MITCHELL. Vestiges of the pianist, who was born in 1971 in Ilford, can already be found towards the end of the 1990s in the F-IRE Collective as also in Tomorrow’s Warrior and Nu Trooper. This was followed by encounters with Courtney Pine, Mark Wingfield or Matana Roberts, his duo with violinist Omar Puente, and the residues of his leadership of Panacea, its spin-off 3iO or, most recently, the Epiphany 3 at “A Vigil for Justice. A Vigil for Peace.’ As well as in ‘A Tribute (For Debbie Purdy)’ about Puente’s MS-stricken wife, battling for the right to self-determined death, matters close to his [Mitchell’s] heart include justice, peace and ‘The Migration’. On Zeitgeist2 (Discus 116CD) he emphasises the left hand, specifically C.P.E. Bach’s Klavierstück in A, Howard Skempton’s For Catherine and his own Zeitgeist, all left-hand pieces. At is side is the cellist SHIRLEY SMART (Arben/Smart Duo, Maya Youssef Group). In ‘Mind’s Eye’, she pleads for Coleridge’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ and for open doors between reality and fantasy. In ‘Anxieties’ she demonstrates, through Kwame Appiah’s ‘Cosmopolitanism’, an interplay between the ‘foreign infiltration’ of quick pizzicato bebop and the pathos of Arabic mawwāl. Identity as a straitjacket, which is contradicted by life itself. Mitchell stands with head firm in ‘Inner Sanctum’, after an ‘age of harmony’ and deepens this in ‘The First Note’: ‘Instead of divide and conquer / instead of separate and rule / What if it had been unite and embrace.’ Admittedly, not without rage. On ‘A Son of Windrush Reflects’ he acts as a slam poet together with energetic cello strokes, in praise of his mother, who worked in the National Health Service for 43 years, where she often heard ‘Take your black paws off me!’, a bitter reckoning with British racism. This culminated with Theresa May’s cruel scandal, rendering as illegal immigrants and deporting the ‘Windrush Generation’ who had immigrated from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1971, instead of thanking them. Smart’s ‘Opals’ equally vitalises the melancholy of the cello with the resilient remaining and thriving figures of the piano. Instead of celebrating the spirit of selfishness and glorifying bloodshed, both players evoke bittersweet harmony and tranquillity. – Rigobert Dittmann, BAD ALCHEMY (translated by Ian Pace)

Le pianiste anglais Robert MITCHELL et la violoncelliste Shirley SMART, qui a longtemps vécu au Moyen-Orient, se sont rencontrés en 2013. Ils avaient en commun une formation classique et une envie de s’en éloigner pour explorer les différentes possibilités d’improvisation – d’où leur intérêt pour le jazz. Leur album « Zeitgeist2 » est le résultat de cette recherche et bénéficie de la complicité des deux musiciens. Les compositions des deux protagonistes nous donnent à entendre des ambiances différentes, avec une prédilection pour le piano joué exclusivement à la main gauche. À côté d’une composition de CPE Bach, on trouve aussi 2 pièces qui servent de base à un poème de Robert Mitchell. – Guy Stuckens, RADIO AIR LIBRE

Although SHIRLEY SMART (cello) and ROBERT MITCHELL (piano, spoken word) met each other quite a few years ago, it took some time to actually record an album, and when they did, the pandemic got in the way to release their debut album Zeitgeist 2 years ago. Now it’s officially released and we can enjoy their wonderful mixture of cello, piano and spoken word. The music on the CD is beautiful calmer cello/piano variations and duets without ever sounding boring, instrumental most of the time, except for a few spoken word songs that features the crystal clear voice of Robert. There’s a lot of classical music influences and of course jazzy parts, but all together it feels like a real original sounding record that has a lot of lovely melodies to be heard during songs like Anxieties and For Catharine. – Strutter’zine

Featuring Shirley Smart on cello and Robert Mitchell on piano & voice (2 pieces). I don’t know much about either members of this duo although it turns out that Shirley Smart had an earlier duo disc out on FMR while Robert Mitchell has worked with Matana Roberts and has a leader disc out on the Edition Records label. After reading through the liner notes, I could tell that this is/was a serious offering The pieces ere composed by either Mr. Mitchell or Ms. Smart plus “Klavierstuck in A” by CPE Bach and “For Catherine” by Howard Skempton. There are two poems by Mr. Mitchell included in the liner notes, both of which show him to be a wonderfully thoughtful, articulate and probing poet of the highest order. Both musicians here are well-versed in both modern & older classical strains as well as improvised or freer music. “Opals” is a strong opening piece, warm, sublime, haunting, lovely with elegant playing from both musicians. Mr. Mitchell does a great job of reciting both of his poems with his rich, elegant British accent adding some wise polish to each piece with Ms. Smart’s superb cello supporting his voice quite nicely. I can hear a bond between these musicians as they weave their lines together, complimenting each other with harmonious and/or haunting shades. Midway through this disc, the duo perform CPE Bach’s “Klavierstuck in A” (one Bach children, composed in the 1700’s), an ancient work and then move to Howard Skempton’s “For Catherine”, by a contemporary British composer. The Skempton piece is stark, melodic and delightfully haunting with some enchanting cello by Ms. Smart. One of the thing I most admire about this disc is how modest it is, it is not about showing off chops or complex composing, it is more about thoughtful music which creates its own story with slowly ever-changing scenery. This is not like anything we’ve heard on the Discus label before now. It is still a gem and somewhat easier to absorb and appreciate. – Bruce Lee Gallanter, DMG NYC

This current project of the classically trained duo of pianist and poet Robert Mitchell and cellist Shirley Smart came about after conversations back in 2014. Their desire to merge the structure of classical with the freedom of improv led to this collaboration, in which Robert also wished to address his family’s history and their relationship to the Windrush scandal in a way that is accessible yet emotive. The piano and cello merge really contentedly on the opener “Opals”, but it doesn’t cover the melancholy that pushes at the edges, and there is a sense of it being unsettled in the judicious choice of chords and some of the sidestepping note selection. It is a little wary, even during the jaunty middle selection, and feels tossed around, as if evoking the passage of a ship into the unknown. The beautifully enunciated but dry tones of Robert are introduced on “The First Note”, and here the story starts. Against a backdrop of slow cello strokes, he carefully delivers each word, a wish for a world of harmony, ensuring the message is fully understood as Shirley writhes around the text, highlighting their desire. Their playing together is as much about savouring what has come to pass; a resolute and purposeful version of “Klavierstuck In A” links with their take on Howard Skempton‘s “For Catherine” while also exploring the diverse links that draw them together. Shirley spent time in the Middle East and her fusion of what we recognise as jazz with those influences comes to pass in the often unexpected directions the pieces take. “Anxieties” is very well named as it feels highly strung, the cello picking constantly at the walking bass piano, unsettled and awkward. The cello hops and skips here, while on the title track it is much more contemplative and emotionally searching, its spare sound aching with a sense of loss. For me though, the stand-out moment is “A Son Of Windrush Reflects”, another spoken-word piece in which Robert essentially recounts his mother’s history and the difficulties she encountered whilst working for the NHS over here. Her constant sense of positivity, along with elements of frustration and the feeling of love that Robert’s words exude, are just delightful. That frustration and also the later Windrush scandal itself is beautifully expressed by the cello, while the voice continues in its measured, unruffled way, evoking his mother’s unquenchable desire to help and be of good humour. It is one of the most touching tributes and leads into the frivolous album closer “Mind’s Eye”, but even here the feelgood sense is tempered with warnings, as if to say we can never allow such a thing to pass again. This is a pairing of two skilled players, with Robert’s poetry adding a third and very worthwhile element. Everybody should hear Zeitgeist² and allow the reality of what some people have had to endure to really be understood. – Mr Olivetti, FREQ

….. the fine pianist Robert Mitchell, whose inspired duo with cellist Shirley Smart has resulted in “Zeitgeist²”. The album probably counts as chamber jazz of a sort, although it manages to be both profound and gently witty on its own terms, too. Mitchell’s precise, crisp playing provides an ideal contrast to Smart’s lyrical, occasionally yearning cello lines, although the duo isn’t afraid to have fun with a boogie riff here and a walking bassline there. A fine example of interplay between two very articulate musicians that comes highly recommended, as does the Discus label in general with its impressive catalogue of fearless leftfieldery. – Roger Thomas, BBC MUSIC

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