Donovan Mixon - Profile of a Jazz Artist


Donovan Mixon warms up

To say Donovan Mixon has had an interesting career is an understatement.  Coming from humble beginnings in Newark, New Jersey, from an early age he set his sights upon a career in music.  His talent has brought him from Atlantic City to Boston, Milan to Istanbul and now to Chicago; his determination has earned him a Master of Music degree from Manhattan School of Music and an NEA for jazz composition. 

Donovan Mixon and Tony Barba

After seven years on the faculty at Berklee College of Music, he moved to Italy and lived as a freelance musician, performing at clubs and festival around Europe.  During this period his first two CD recordings, Look Ma, No Hands!, And Language of the Emotions was published.  By 2000, his text Performance Ear Training was published and he’d joined the music faculty at Istanbul Bilgi University in Turkey.  While in Istanbul he recorded his most recent CD, CulminationCulmination earned critical acclaim and landed upon jazzchicago.nets list of Top Chicago Recordings of 2010.  His current activities include teaching, conducting jazz education clinics, and performing.

The Donovan Mixon Hybrid Project: Corey Biggerstaff, Ares Biskas, Tony Barba, Donovan Mixon, and Dave Onderdonk

 Donovan describes his music as being melody driven and not dependent on a specific harmony, key, or form.  Listening to his most recent album, Culmination, I was struck by how so many diverse sounds and approaches work together to create a unified sound.  The music draws one in with its perfect balance and approach.  And present throughout the recording is Donovan Mixon’s superb guitar playing.

On a recent cold Sunday, I had the opportunity to watch Donovan and his most recent project, The Donovan Mixon’s Hybrid Project, perform at the iconic Green Mill in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.  The Green Mill is a musician’s bar and Donovan appeared more than comfortable in that setting.  The Hybrid Project was performing as part of the Chicago Jazz Composers Collective.  One Sunday a month Kathy Kelly, the Green Mill’s artistic director, hosts a showcase for original jazz compositions.  This Sunday Kathy opened the performance by performing with her band, Tudo de Bom.  The music was light and reminiscent of Henry Mancini and I particularly enjoyed their piece Po as well as Imaginary Twilight.


Donovan Mixon and Tony Barba

When it was Donovan’s turn to perform, he and his band mates confidently took the stage.  What struck me about the Hybrid Project was how each member of the band complemented the other.  Five pieces were performed with the first, The Dance of Life, decidedly the sweetest.  Tony Barba played the flute and bantered beautifully with the bass (Cory Biggerstaff) and the drums (Ares Biskas).  Donovan joined with the music in pieces and complemented their music effortlessly with masterful guitar work.  Together they created a decidedly nuanced and complex work that easily engaged the audience.

Donovan then introduced his next piece, Quando il Lupo Annusa I Fiori (When the Wolf Smells the Flowers) with a short story relating how he came to compose the song.  Again his band performed beautifully with Donovan creating a space for each of the musicians to perform in.  Open, which was composed by Dave Onderdonk (guitar), was performed next and had a whimsical, upbeat feel.  The last two numbers, Summer of ’78 and Giochiamo Quando Suoniamo (We Play When We Play) were both composed by Donovan Mixon.  The latter piece (Giochiamo) was later reinterpreted by Donovan while in Turkey and was retitled Rough Translation.  It was that piece that most enthralled me with its decidedly eastern flair.  Tony Barba complemented the piece nicely with his play of the bansuri, a wind instrument more closely associated with music from India. 

The iconic Green Mill

After the performance I had a chance to briefly talk with Donovan Mixon.  I complemented him on his masterful work and asked him how long this project had been together.  Donovan laughed and replied “four hours.”  I assumed he meant four hours of rehearsal a day for several months.  No, he said, maybe four total hours of rehearsal and a lot of emailing.  Amazed, told him that I would very much like to see what Donovan Mixon’s Hybrid Project would be capable of after a few more gigs together.

Bottom Line:  Donovan Mixon maintains the following website which includes performance information  The Green Mill’s Chicago Jazz Composers Collective occurs one Sunday a month.   Click here for more information 


All photos taken by Noel Schecter



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