by Nancy Neon
Mitch Hampton is a modern day beau brummel with a full blown ’70s fetish. At the Cambridge restaurant Cuchi Cuchi, he led me on the musical odyssey that has brought him to the release of Heavy Listening, his debut solo album on Navona Records. Hampton received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the New England Conservatory of Music. Moreover he has commissioned work for clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, flutist Mike Feingold, and Ciumpi Quartet, among others. Hampton’s works have been performed at Boston’s Symphony Hall, Weil Recital Hall, and on NPR. It is a treat discussing music with one of my favorite people at one of my favorite restaurants.
Mitch Hampton: I fantasized about being a musician even before I took my first lesson.
Noise: Why does being a musician hold such power for you?
Mitch: I was frustrated at having no access to instruments. My dad had a lot of records from the ’50s and ’60s, a couple from the late-’40s – theater records like the first Guys & Dolls soundtrack. He also had records like Dylan Thomas, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, Bach’s Branderburg Concertos, and blues recordings by Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.
Noise: Did you start on piano?
Mitch: The first instrument I tried was the trumpet. It was the ’70s and albums were very synthesizer oriented and there were album covers with banks of keyboards. I started going to local concerts and I was fascinated by how the instruments look and worked. I saw a local band with a musician who had five keyboards run through a computer. I went to classical concerts and I was interested in the role of keyboard in classical music like the harpsichord and the clavichord. Keith Jarrett played on Saturday Night Live and I started buying his records. A lot of albums in the ’70s were double album sets with powerful artwork and photographs. There was a lot of emphasis on the instruments like a guy flying through the air with his trumpet. I tried to draw that. I had Freddie Hubbard’s album Keep Your Soul Together where Hubbard is holding his trumpet while lying on a couch that is a pair of lips. I listened to that album over and over. I even wanted a couch like that! When I was 12 or 13, I saw one of the first productions of Chicago with Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. I think they were in their late-30s with Bob Fosse as choreographer and Jerry Orbach of Law & Order-fame was in it. I did a drawing of Verdon and Rivera in leotards. They were older; they were not doing ingenue parts. I discovered The Beatles White Albumand was fascinated by it. I was impressed by the soundtrack to Hair, jazz, theater, contemporary rock music. Another important influence was seeing the Jackson Five at Madison Square Garden.
Noise: What impressed you with them?
Mitch: Their rhythm, soul, and energy!
Noise: Who else has inspired you?
Mitch: I started getting into the classical pianist, Vladimir Horowitz, at that point, and I could listen to piano all day. It didn’t matter who was playing. It could be Erik Satie, Glenn Gould’s Goldberg variations, Debussy, or avant-garde composers like John Cage, Charles Ives, or Aaron Copeland. Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder blew my mind! Then there was Johnny Hodges, best known for his solo work with Duke Ellington’s Big Band. Luckily my dad saved those records. I liked Randy Newsman’s Nine Songs and Little Criminals. I liked his lyrics and the humor in them. I liked the New Orleans shuffle. Box sets were big in the ’70s and I had lots of them. A whole stage play like Hamlet could be in a box set. I had a first production of Death of a Salesman and H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. I stared to subscribe to music magazines like Contemporary Keyboard and Downbeat.
Noise: What other parts of the music business had an effect on you?
Mitch: The visual culture was important to me – the design and the advertising, The visual culture was more important at that time. Artists posed with their instruments. Individuals artists posed with their bands, I thought it was glamorous – the idea of being on the road with a band.
Noise: So did you follow up on your feelings?
Mitch: I started taking piano lessons from an Italian woman. She was old and very strict. She was the high school’s choral conductor and an expert on opera. She taught me about opera and when she realized that I loved jazz, we started a cultural exchange. Each week I agreed to listen to an opera if she allowed me to bring her a jazz album to listen to. I turned her on to Oskar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bessie Smith. She turned me on to Tosca, Caruso and Verdi. I loved the way that they composed. I fell in love with “Monday Morning Blues” – the first piece I learned. I practiced everyday. I tried to recreate what I heard in my head. I went to see Herbie Hancock and I played the first piece I learned for him. My teacher wanted me to play classical. I liked the feeling of the blues, however I was a dutiful student. I followed her rules. Then I listened to Art Tatum and never heard the piano played that well. At the New England Conservatory I took a piano class from Stanley Cowell who had met Art Tatum and had taken lessons from him. They were both from Toledo, Ohio and lived in the same neighborhood. Moreover I feel you must be a complete artist on the piano. You have to be able to recreate the sound of a full orchestra on your own. I have relative pitch while my childhood piano teacher had perfect pitch, so I had to work on training my ear.
Noise: What about music in films?
Mitch: I feel that movies are a kinetic art form like music. When I saw Jaws and heard John Williams’ score, I felt he took a lot from Aaron Copeland, the dean of American composers. I was very affected by 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Beatles movie Let It Be. It was exciting to see them playing outdoors.
Noise: Which film do you think used music to its fullest effect?
Mitch: Psycho. In fact Psycho‘s musical director, Bernard Herman, said “Hitchcock only finishes a movie 60 percent, I have to finish it for him.”
Noise: What type of movie would you like to score?
Mitch: A police film with great chase scenes. Like William Fiedkin’s French Connection with music by Don Ellis. I saw an amazing show at Cambridge’s Art Repertory Theater where Canadian pianist, playwright, and composer, Hershey Felder appeared as Monsieur Chopin. I saw him do George Gershwin Alone and he knocked me out! There aren’t many shows about Gershwin so that was especially impressive. I liked it a little better than the Chopin show. I felt what Felder was doing was gimmicky and commercial, but it was a way to make music more accessible to larger audiences. Speaking of Chopin, he is a big influence on my music, the figures he wrote on piano, his brilliant sense of melody and phrasing. Chopin has such an influence on jazz musicians – Bill Evans for instance.
Noise: When I first you, you played one of my favorite pieces of music – “Iere Gymnopedie” by Erik Satie. What about Satie appeals to you?
Mitch: Satie’s pieces are perfectly made. He is both free and controlled. He was able to get out of his own way.
Noise: The Jazz Suites by Claude Boiling and Jean Pierre Rampal is one of my favorite recordings. If you were going to make a recording like Jazz Suites, who would be your Rampal?
Mitch: Mike Feingold! He is a genius, certainly as good or better than Rampal. I would work with him in seconds. Right now I am writing for trombone and piano – a double concerto. I’m also writing a piece for a high school piano player. In fact, I’m always writing.