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Tyler Mitchell brings an insider's vantage to "Sun Ra's Journey," with Marshall Allen

Tyler Mitchell
Keyvan Behpour

Tyler Mitchell's prowess and artistic outlook are the product of a wide-ranging musical pedigree. As a Chicago native who first made his way onto the New York music scene in the mid-1980s, he's fluent in the language of bop as well as the outer regions. This diversity, matched with a driving beat and distinct choice of notes, has distinguished him as the bassist with Grammy-nominated vocalists and NEA Jazz Masters Jon Hendricks and Shirley Horn; all-star drummers Art Taylor and Rashied Ali; and, for over 20 years, the Sun Ra Arkestra.

WBGO's Let Me Tell You 'Bout It w/ Tyler Mitchell

Mitchell's unique background also makes him the prime candidate to produce the forthcoming album from Arkestra leader and saxophonist Marshall Allen. Through the Smalls Foundation, Allen was awarded the Smalls Masters grant and Mitchell was selected to arrange and build a small ensemble around Allen that will be released as the 97-year-old-saxophonist's fourth overall solo album.

The recording session was held this summer — and, the night after the recording, Allen and Mitchell performed the material for a live audience at Smalls Jazz Club. The sets, ranging from Sun Ra originals, Allen and Mitchell compositions and choice cover songs, were well received by a capacity crowd that came to get a sneak peak of the forthcoming project.

"It came out really beautifully," Mitchell says. "Marshall even tackled some songs that he'd never played before like Thelonious Monk's 'Skippy'."

Tyler Mitchell "Sun Ra's Journey" ft. Marshall Allen- Live At Smalls Jazz Club - 8/20/21

The seed of Mitchell's socialization as a listener, bassist, and producer started at home. Mitchell's father, Chicago muralist Caton Mitchell, was an avid listener and befriended many musicians, including Clifford Jordan and bassist Donald Raphael Garrett, who became one of Mitchell's first bass teachers.

"When my father painted [at the house] he would have records playing...and I was able to recognize [the sounds of] John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Miles Davis, " Mitchell says. "One day, Donald Garrett came by the house with John Coltrane. I was about four or five years old, but I still remember my father sketching a portrait of Coltrane while he was resting in a chair. So, I was meeting and hearing these guys long before I started even playing the bass."

Early performance experience with fellow Chicagoans and musical stalwarts, like Von Freeman and the members of Association of the Advancement for Creative Musicians (AACM), cultivated and nurtured Mitchell in his early development. With the move to New York, he credits a now obscure street musician and magician known as "Kusinaton" in convincing him to come along and relocate in 1984.

"He told me that he thought the avant-garde players would embrace me quicker than the bebop guys, and I didn't believe him at first," Mitchell says. "When I got to New York, I was playing with guys like Don Braden and Vincent Herring during the daytime in the streets, and at night I would go to the Lower East Side and play in the loft scene with Dennis Charles, Billy Bang and Jemeel Moondoc. If those guys really liked you, they would stick with you. Pretty soon after that, I met Sun Ra."

The late 1980s and early '90s were blazing for Mitchell, as he toured internationally and amassed many of his aforementioned credits. After relocating to Mexico in the late 1990s, he returned to New York in 2011 and rejoined the Arkestra, where he remains. Mitchell is also the featured bassist with pianist and Smalls Jazz Club owner Spike Wilner, drummer Evan Sherman and saxophonist Eric Wyatt.

In our chat, Mitchell shares more about meeting and playing with Sun Ra and Allen in the 1980s; reflects on his time with Art Taylor; and gives a few tips to younger musicians regarding the best ways to stay open to new ideas while learning the lineage of the music.

Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.