Pianist/Keyboardist/Composer Mitch Forman to release new recording “Puzzle” on BFM Jazz
Over the course of his three-and-a-half-decade career, pianist Mitchel Forman has performed alongside such jazz giants as Stan Getz, Bill Evans, John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny and Wayne Shorter. He’s recorded more than a dozen albums as a leader, appeared on dozens more as a sideman, and performed in some of the world’s greatest venues, among them the Newport Jazz Festival.
But Puzzle, his new BFM Jazz release with bassist Kevin Axt and drummer Steve Hass, may just be Mitchel Forman’s crowning achievement, an intimate display that balances dazzling technique with a wide range of textures, emotions and moods. On Puzzle, Forman, Axt and Hass attain a level of communication most jazz ensembles only dream of. Piano trios may be a dime a dozen in jazz, but few make music as rewarding, personal and significant as this.
Alternately swinging, introspective, thrilling, lyrical and grooving, the dozen tracks that comprise Puzzle cohere to tell a story, “an examination of life itself,” as Forman says. “The band fits together like pieces of a puzzle, and the person listening is the last piece to complete the puzzle. And the puzzling questions,” he adds, “are eternal. I remain open and available for the answers.”
The trio of Forman, Axt and Hass had only worked together a handful of times before they convened to record Puzzle. It was after a particularly satisfying gig in a small California town, “a magical experience” as Forman recalls, that they decided to see how that chemistry might transfer to the recording studio.
“A few months after that gig a friend of mine, Dori Amarilio, mentioned that he was moving his studio to a new location,” says Forman. “He asked if I could bring in some friends to work out any bugs at his new room. I immediately thought of Kevin and Steve. The first day was so rewarding that I decided to book some more sessions and Puzzle is the result. The biggest issue we found with the studio was when Kevin whacked his head on an unfinished door frame. He played the rest of the day probably with a concussion. That might explain some of his ‘dizzying’ solo work! I think the potential for an uplifting, transformational experience, both for the band and for the audience, is present with this group,” Forman says. “I see the unique combination of exciting creativity coupled with extreme support for the other members as being very present. There is a feeling that I have that I can’t possibly make a mistake, as every ‘error’ is interpreted as just another avenue of creativity to explore.”
Produced by Forman and recorded by Amarilio at the latter’s Blue Canyon Studios in Los Angeles, with additional recording at the Lazy Bagel in Simi Valley, California, Puzzle begins with a medley of Keith Jarrett’s “Death and the Flower” and Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” that showcases the nuanced interactivity of the trio members.
The intricacies and subtleties of Forman’s astounding runs are ably matched by the bassist and drummer, who constantly move the music forward by bringing their own ideas into the mix. As the recording progresses, through both original material and well chosen interpretations (including a musing take on Bacharach-David’s “Alfie,” and a jaunty and edgy reading of the Cyndi Lauper hit “Time After Time”), Forman and the trio continue to explore all of the possibilities inherent within the compositions.
“The trio format has always been a most flexible unit,” says Forman. “There is much room for dynamic interplay.” The material, he says, “was arranged in the studio but most had been previously played and worked out by this trio or with some other groups that I performed with. ‘Time After Time’ was based on an arrangement that I had done for an L.A. singer named Kathryn Bostic. There definitely was some tweaking done to all the arrangements once we started recording. And I think I might be the only pianist brave and/or stupid enough to cover Keith Jarrett’s ‘Death and the Flower,’” he adds. “I wore that LP out listening to it when I was younger. I’ve been a huge fan of Keith’s for many years.”
Forman is only being modest when he states that taking on an artist as beloved as Keith Jarrett poses a challenge to him. Since his arrival on the scene in the early 1980s, Mitchel Forman—who contributes organ, melodica and synth to Puzzle in addition to piano—has been a go-to keyboardist for some of the most renowned artists in the world, precisely because of his flexibility and determination not to hold back. “I’ve had the wonderful good fortune of playing with so many of the legends of the jazz world,” he says. “I was always impressed with how many of them performed at such a high, inspired level no matter what the conditions were. All day on a bus, four flights, no sleep, bad sound system. Their lifelong commitment to their art would just shine no matter the circumstances.”
Forman was only 24 and already playing with the Gerry Mulligan Big Band when he found himself onstage at Newport with the legends George Benson and Freddie Hubbard. Benson, he recalls, was especially encouraging. A stint with a latter-day version of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra elevated Forman’s profile within the jazz scene and it was during this period that Mitch also played with the great Wayne Shorter. Ultimately though, Forman knew that he would have to go off on his own to make the statement he really wanted to make as a musician. “Being a sideman is excellent training,” he says. And with the release of Puzzle, he is certain that he’s reached a new plateau in his artistry.
“Puzzle might be my most honest CD to date. This feels like the first time that I am making a serious commitment to it,” he says. “I love being able to provide an environment for others to shine in and to somehow plan to make a space where the parts are greater than the whole. I think that having the right players, the right material and going in with the awareness that something magical is not only possible, but probable, are the ingredients to being a successful leader. But with the right raw materials, not much leadership is necessary.”
For more information on Mitchel Forman, visit his website at Mitchelforman.com