Snark Horse is a book of highly-detailed one-bar compositions by pianist/composer Matt Mitchell and drummer/composer Kate Gentile -– audaciously presented across six discs – that are designed to incite inventive, multi-directional improvisation. It is also the name of a revolving cast of musicians – including Mitchell and Gentile – who have performed this music in various combinations since 2013. Both Mitchell and Gentile’s work are characterized by their exacting nature. Mitchell’s prior release, Phalanx Ambassadors, was called by Popmatters “a high watermark for the new jazz… a breathtaking jawdropper from one of the best pianists and composers now working.” Gentile’s 2017 debut release, Mannequins, was described by The New York Times as “full of stuttering rhythms and teetering intervallic jumps; an array of textures — sometimes chiming, sometimes abraded — disorient you even as they deepen your listening.”
Mitchell is a Pi Recordings stalwart, having released four prior albums as a leader and appear on eight others as a sideman. He is a member of many acclaimed ensembles, including Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, Dan Weiss’s Starebaby, Miles Okazaki’s Trickster, Ches Smith’s We All Break, Kate Gentile’s Find Letter X, Anna Webber’s Simple Trio, Jonathan Finlayson’s Sicilian Defense, John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble, Linda Oh’s Aventurine, Jon Irabagon’s Outright!, Caroline Davis’s Alula, and the Dave King Trio. Mitchell has also performed with Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas, Rudresh Mahanthappa, John Zorn, Mario Pavone’s Blue Dialect Trio, Quinsin Nachoff’s Flux, Darius Jones, Michael Attias, Chris Lightcap, Donny McCaslin, Ohad Talmor, JD Allen, Rez Abbasi, and many others.
In addition to leading her own groups and co-leading Snark Horse, Gentile collaborates with guitarist Dustin Carlson and saxophonist Nathaniel Morgan in Secret People. She has worked with Michaël Attias, Tim Berne, Anthony Braxton, Cloud Becomes Your Hand, Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas, Marty Ehrlich, Michael Formanek, Miles Okazaki, God Is My Co-Pilot, Helado Negro, Chris Speed, Anna Webber, and John Zorn. Her 13-movement composition, “biome ii,” was commissioned by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), who recorded it this spring to be released as a full-length album.
Snark Horse began as a result of an experiment for Mitchell and Gentile to each write a single bar a day, a change from composing the sort of longer, micro-detailed pieces that they are both known for. This practice resulted in a book of some 70 compositions that are roughly equally split between the two musicians. Despite their brevity, each piece is a dense nugget of musical information, filled with quirky rhythms and layers of counterpoint for the musicians to unpack extemporaneously. Because the music is notated for the piano – with no specific charts for other instruments – any instrument can participate with each musician given the freedom to decide what part of the score to focus on. The performance approach is jazz-oriented in that the improvisation is based on the written material, albeit the collective nature of the playing requires each musician to remain highly-attuned to the constantly shifting landscape. The one-bar compositions can be looped, played in sequence, made into vamps, transposed, inverted, alternated, and explored in basically infinite permutations. Rather than following a prescribed form, the musicians are empowered to use the full extent of their spontaneous imagination and creativity to guide things as they see fit, but to do it in a way that is respectful to the collective space.
The music has been performed live, in various personnel and instrumental configurations over years, which has helped Mitchell and Gentile explore the premise’s unlimited possibilities. For this recording, they convened eight other singular musicians – some of the most uncharacterizable in improvised music – in varying pre-conceived combinations, all of whom have taken part in prior Snark Horse performances. All of the group pieces were recorded in one take, and much of the wonder exists in listening for how the music astonishingly transmutes, taking on new colors, textures and moods as a consequence of thousands of individual decisions that somehow collectively steer the music to its ultimate destination. When Mitchell and Gentile originally planned the recording session, the idea was to run through the material and then choose some representative tracks for release. But according to Mitchell, “The session had an unmistakable vibe – somehow all those badasses together created an undeniable synergy. It felt expansive, kaleidoscopic. Nothing was redundant and it really went far beyond what we could have imagined.” In the end, they made the decision that including all the tracks gives a fuller picture of the magic that occurred over those three days. Interspersed among the group pieces are electronic works that Mitchell later composed (based loosely off other Snark Horse pieces on the album) and constructed alone that serve to further expand the aural palette and help make each disc a unified listening experience. The full, collected result – clocking in at almost six hours in length and presented on six CDs packaged in individual sleeves housed in a box with beautiful artwork and design by Gentile – is a work filled with inspiration, surprise and wonder.
Snark Horse is the apotheosis of Mitchell and Gentile’s goal to create an expansive environment that encourages risk-taking improvisation through the use of compressed versions of the kinds of material they use in their longer pieces. Their compositions help foster a unique, highly imaginative universe for the musicians to show off their individual takes on this truly idiosyncratic music. The dauntingly ambitious project presents the musicians’ collective resourceful creativity to truly valiant effect.