Profile: Misha Mullov-Abbado

Misha Mullov-Abbado is an important but unpretentious new talent in the modern jazz scene. A bassist and composer, his music demonstrates an eclectic melting-pot of styles informed by an extensive compositional training. Behind it all is a simple belief about the dialogue between composition and performance: no piece is better than it sounds to an audience or how it feels to play.


Having just released his debut album, ‘New Ansonia’, Misha is embarking on a UK tour. After attending the launch gig at King’s Place in London, I spoke to him about his background, his time at Cambridge and the Royal Academy of Music, as well as his new album.


The suggestion that someone has grown up in a ‘musical household’ is often used to understand or explain exceptional musical talent, although it functions somewhat as an understatement here. Misha’s father was the Italian Claudio Abbado, perhaps the greatest conductor of the romantic symphony; his mother, the Russian violinist Viktoria Mullova, famous for her defection from Soviet Russia.


Despite this, Misha met his father for the first time when he was 12 and although he did get to know him before his death early last year (‘Heal Me on This Cloudy Day’ was written for his funeral), it is his relationship with his mother which had the profounder impact on his musical upbringing. He told me that he grew up listening to her practise: “funnily enough a lot of the stuff …  I would be able to recognise it and tell her off for skipping bits while she was practising when I was one”.


But that’s not to say that there weren’t any traces of the music found in a normal home. Like many of us, the first artists he could remember being played were Stevie Wonder and the Beatles. Yet unlike many people who encounter music at a young age, I don’t get the impression that Misha grew up in a particular musical tribe but in a home which fostered the joy of music-making in all its forms. Being anything apart from a musician was unthinkable: “I’ve not really known any other way … I think I just never thought about it”.


So while Jazz was not an explicit part of that upbringing, it is not surprising to hear that when Misha picked up a bass guitar in his uncle’s house to play along to some of the Beatles songs, he soon progressed to playing in school jazz groups. Despite this, up until he left Cambridge and joined the Royal Academy of Music, he focused on the French Horn – an instrument which he had begun to learn at the age of seven.


During his time studying music at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, Misha took his bass playing more seriously and in his second year he began to realise that “I love jazz and I love improvising and I want to write my own music for jazz groups”. This might be explained in part by a unique aspect of the Cambridge course: the fact that it can be completed without a performing element. Musicians are free to play what they enjoy and therefore develop a musical identity outside of the curriculum.


Naturally, the other side of this was that Misha’s Jazz playing didn’t always translate into the prescribed compositional aspects of the course: “I just found it quite difficult to find the motivation to write for new music events that I didn’t feel any particular connection with, as opposed to writing for a concert that I would organise myself”.


It is unsurprising, then, that he followed up his experience at Cambridge with a scholarship place at the Royal Academy of Music where performance and composition are seen as the two sides of the same coin. Misha enthused about his time there and how it integrated all the different aspects of bass playing, jazz composition, ensemble work and improvising. It was even during this time that he formed his band for some of the required recitals.


What stood out in particular in our conversation was how Misha explained that he didn’t think of himself as a jazz musician because “after all it is all just music”. Crucial to his refreshing outlook is how he understands all the implications of that maxim: how music is a living, breathing entity which goes beyond genre categorisation and notes on a page.


This couldn’t be clearer with the music on his album, which was composed over the past two to three years. Nothing was written for the record, but is what Misha considers to be “tried and tested” – each track worked for the band and for live audiences. Despite this, the album works effectively as a whole, with a similar process behind the order of pieces, which Misha selected as if a set list.


This is a particularly strong success with the variety of musical textures and styles across the record: the title track is funky, ‘Lock, Stock & Shuffle’ has a driving swing accompaniment, ‘Circle Song’ showcases a beautifully harmonised melody with a minimalistic piano line, and ‘Satan, Oscillate My Metallic Sonatas’ has, at points, the open feel of free jazz. For Misha part of the aim was “to push the limits of how varied I can be.” Contrasting songs are placed deliberately next to each other, making what might otherwise have seemed to be overly experimental a display of versatility.


At a closer level, there are a number of excellent performances on the album, both improvised and otherwise. Misha’s bass-playing in solo sections, such as at the beginning of ‘Just Another Love Song’, treats the double bass as a melody instrument to great effect and matches well with the combined sound of the alto saxophone and trombone. The album features a number of beautifully unfurling melodies, particularly ‘Circle Song, where the tune passes effortlessly between the instruments. Such moments are the most memorable of the album.


As a live band, they followed a number of the crucial rules often ignored by more experienced jazz groups: performing from memory, keeping eye-contact with one another and giving the sense that they feel privileged to be performing.
Misha doubtlessly has an exciting musical career ahead of him. It is clear that, by nature or nurture, he has developed a keen musical talent from a great musical family. For what it’s worth, though, I’d be inclined to think this simply as throat-clearing. Let the music speak for itself.


Photo credit: Misha Mullov-Abbado