Worldly and wise with chops and a first class music education at the age of 20, Dallas drummer Mike Mitchell is a globetrotting prodigy. In the last four years he has won more awards from DownBeat Magazine than he can remember, as well as being cited as an up-and-coming artist in countless other worldwide publications. He has worked with Christian McBride, a virtuoso jazz bassist and multiple Grammy award winner, as well as Antonio Hart, the alto saxophonist who recorded with legends like Dizzy Gillespie and McCoy Tyner. But this only scratches the surface of what Mitchell has already accomplished.
Mitchell has been playing drums since he was two years old, when he watched an older cousin play drums and learned quickly. "I come from a very musical family," he says. He has other cousins who play drums, an uncle who plays bass, aunts who play organ, piano and sing. Born in Fort Worth, Mitchell moved to Arlington when he was in first grade. He enjoyed playing Motown songs and practicing to Earth, Wind & Fire before starting at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts at 14, where he started focusing on jazz.
"I make new music all the time, off the dome," he says, referring to jazz improvisation. "It's a really nice way to keep myself fresh, keep all the wheels turning." Booker T. has produced incredible artists like Roy Hargrove, Keith Anderson, Erykah Badu, Norah Jones, Edie Brickell and RC & The Gritz. "I think it's one of the greatest art schools in the nation," says Mitchell. "There's something in the water."
Mitchell credits his jazz instructor, Bart Marantz, with showing students how to express themselves and allowing them to focus on whichever genre of jazz they prefer. "He always taught me to learn the basics and history," explains Mitchell, who focused on bebop in school. "All the greatest musicians know how things are supposed to be done and change it."
As a drummer, Mitchell can play all sorts of different types of music and anyone can see that he is a powerhouse behind the kit. But his sound is not easy to describe, as he readily admits. "I'm still searching," he says. "I want to have my own independent style and voice. Most drum nerds are able to listen to an album and immediately tell you who the drummer is and that's the goal for me."
It is clear that he has been influenced by jazz fusion drummers like Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, and Lenny White. But he also takes queues from rock drummers like Mitch Mitchell, Keith Moon and John Bonham.
In 2012, Mitchell was in New Orleans with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and found himself performing in a group led by none other than Herbie Hancock, easily one of the most celebrated and influential jazz artists of all time. The group was introduced by Harry Shearer and the performance just happened to be the Sunrise Concert in Congo Square for the first International Jazz Day. The next day he started a Master's level class at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
In 2013, a YouTube video of Mike Mitchell performing caught the attention of jazz pioneer Stanley Clarke, a bassist who has sold millions of records and scored countless films in his 40-year career. To inquire about Mitchell, Clarke contacted Dallas keyboardist Bobby Sparks, a musician who has worked with artists as diverse as St. Vincent, Ray Charles, and Prince. Sparks has known Mitchell since he was a child and called him at Booker T., where he was going from one class to the next.
"I thought he was joking so I hung up," recalls Mitchell. Shortly after that, Mitchell was on his way to L.A. where Clarke lives. They jammed and clicked, so Mitchell has been touring with the Stanley Clarke Band internationally since 2013 and also appeared on Clarke's latest album, Up.
In America, where jazz was born, the Stanley Clarke Band's shows are club-based, with some performances at festivals and performing arts centers. But overseas the band plays at theaters and arenas. Mitchell remembers playing in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, as a highlight of his career thus far. The Stanley Clarke Band played a sold-out show to a crowd of over 6,000 in the city where jazz is most popular out of all the places he has visited. "They listen to jazz like Americans listen to Katy Perry," he says.
After touring in Europe for a month and a half, Mitchell kicked off 2015 with a packed show on January 2 at Three Links to celebrate the release of his first album, WiFi. Throughout the album, Mitchell fuses jazz with different kinds of music, which is something his jazz predecessors did in the '70s. For example, Herbie Hancock mixed jazz with funk for Head Hunters, an album that still influences jazz and funk as well as hip-hop. Stanley Clarke also mixed jazz with funk and rock with Miles Davis and then with his enormously successful group, Return to Forever.
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On WiFi, Mitchell fuses bebop and free jazz with pop, hip-hop, trap, math rock and metal. "It's a huge fruit kabob," says Mitchell, with shrug and a laugh. But WiFi is an incredible debut album, a 37-minute roller coaster.
Mitchell will again tour with Stanley Clarke band this year, twice in Europe and once here in the U.S. He would also like to tour nationally with Rache', the band of Booker T. musicians he has played with for years who performed most of the music on WiFi. "Rache'" is a hilarious word the group made up, meant to be the French equivalent of "ratchet." The group started by playing house party shows, improvising and fusing jazz with different types of music to make the crowd dance.
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