Matthew Shipp is a creative force.
Pianist Matthew Shipp is a creative force, a wiry channel for creative improvisation whose two new recordings on ESP-Disk, Sonic Fiction (with a quartet) and Zero (solo piano) demonstrate his range: from lyrical to knotty, from blues-drenched to abstract, from difficult to easy-as-pie.
Shipp is a veteran of the New York “downtown scene”, and he achieved a certain beyond-jazz renown in the ‘90s when his music—and particularly the music he was making with saxophonist David S. Ware’s quartet—was featured alongside rock and post-punk artists whose music connected as regal and defiant at once. Ware’s band was actually signed to the Cadillac of record labels, Columbia, in 1997 by Branford Marsalis. For a time, Shipp was the thorny pianist in the coolest jazz band on Earth.
Neither Ware not Shipp was one to compromise, and their moment in the spotlight was reasonably short. Why? Because they shared a creative, restless, uncontainable sensibility. And while Shipp left the quartet in 2007 (and Ware sadly died in 2012 at only 62), the pianist was already on his own path of daring invention. He delved into free improvisation, electronics, hip-hop, all kinds of duets, variations on jazz standards. But for all this variation, Shipp’s music maintained unity. His music always has a ravishing combination of compositional power and refracted strangeness. It is easy to follow its logic and power, but there is always something weird or disruptive at its heart, whether a craggy rhythm, a curious dissonance or the element of pure surprise. And those disruptions are why it is exceptional music.
Shipp releases music with speed and abandon, and Sonic Fiction and Zero were released just eight days apart, though the quartet date is from 2015 and the solo set is from last May. Sonic Fiction features Shipp’s longstanding trio with Whit Dickey on drums and Michael Bisio on bass and adds Mat Walerian on alto saxophone, clarinet, and bass clarinet. It is a joy and a joke, though a perfectly serious one. Among the 10 tracks, “The Note” is the shortest, consisting of a single piano note, struck once and allowed to ring with its echoing overtones for 17 seconds. “The Problem of Jazz” might seem equally jokey, as it starts with one of jazz’s standing clichés: a walking bass line by Bisio, fast and supple, like Ron Carter jacked on some cocaine. Walerian and Dickey enter suddenly, frenetic but light on their feet, but for only 30 or so super-fast bars. Bisio continues, undeterred. Drums and saxophone reenter, but in a totally different mood, growling and smearing the blues, then they are OUT again. Bisio, busy, double-stops and stutters, but always at that fast tempo. Then alto and drums again, playful this time. This toggling continues, with the band playing a different way each time: free squiggles, low grunts leading to swirls–then Biso cuts the tempo back to half time and digs in so gloriously deep, playing blues licks that finally bottom out to a way low note. But who does not participate at all in the “The Problem of Jazz”? Shipp himself. Ha.
Mainly, we get Shipp in heaping doses. “Blues Addition” begins with a two-minute piano solo that is largely consonant and clear, though its pretty chords keep shifting in unusual directions. Shipp will play a blues-drenched eight bars, then a sunny run of chords that sound like light refracting through a skylight. He finds moments of cool two-hand counterpoint and then ends it with a thumping rhythmic figure. Bisio and Walerian follow with a blues duet, bass clarinet bending notes and hunting for 12-bar style chord changes that never quite come. They sound great together, listening constantly and dueling with casual grace.
There are more conventional quartet performances as well. “Lines of Energy” is a pure quartet group improvisation, with each member finding their place in a stop-start kind of groove. “3 by 4” begins as a highly intuitive improvisation for the piano trio alone, with Shipp generating a high percentage of slight of hand where he seems to improvise a middle voice line while also creating a melody high in the piano’s register. Soon, however, Walerian comes in on alto to add what seems now to be a third voice. The piece concludes with thunderous moments that devolve back to a throbbing, peaceful conclusion. “Cell in the Brain” is ballad improvisation for the quartet, using clarinet that bends notes often as the trio works atmospherics on the canvas. The long title track is the most tonal free improvisation in the set, an interlocking set of statements.
Walerian, born in Poland, has been a frequent partner to Shipp in the last few years. He plays with superb control even when he is using “extended techniques” to overblow, squeak, or play split tones. “The Station” is a pure bass clarinet solo. But the best solo here belongs to the leader. “Easy Flow” is just Shipp, improvising from scratch, building lines and chords atop each other like they were Legos, finding lyricism where you least expect it.
The truth is that Shipp can sound as suddenly melodic as Chick Corea or as insistently soulful as Keith Jarrett. He simply does it without a single hackneyed phrase or stock lick. He has the ballad touch of Brad Mehldau but without any sense of cushion from known tunes or repeated harmonic patterns. This is not to put down these more conventional jazz pianists but just to say that Matthew Shipp achieves the same wonders and pleasures but does so through less conventional launching pads and less conventional technique. Yet he does it—and the results are perhaps more starling and beautiful because they come without any familiar markers of “beauty.”
If solo Matthew Shipp is your thing, then Zero is a find and maybe even your record of the year. This is pure Shipp at his best. The 11 miniatures on Disc One were recorded in the studio, each one like an etude—controlled and full of moments that sound composed, though they were almost surely improvised.
For example, “Abyss Before Zero” keeps coming back to a bass line consisting of four haunting arpeggios that are minor variations on each other. It aches with feeling. There are more angular performances here as well. “Pole After Zero” and “Piano Panels” lurch and generate a sense of almost ragtime surprise. Shipp uses the pedals effectively create washes of sound on “Cosmic Sea,” leaving spaces that are covered gently by the wash of shimmering chords. “Zero Subtract from Jazz” is another self-conscious title, Shipp playing with convention. He uses patterns and swing that could be from a more conventional pianist, perhaps, but always with his own sense of surprise. “Blue Equation” does, indeed, interrogate more blues patterns, and the disc reaches a high point on its final track, “After Zero”, which starts as a ballad but travels through swing, counterpoint, and so much more. it is a marvel.
Disc Two is a one-hour lecture recorded live at The Stone in Lower Manhattan. This is Shipp talking directly to the audience, explaining what he does as a musician. “A lot of [what I do when I play] is subconscious processes, and that can’t be translated into discursive English,” he says. But he goes on to say that there may be a “mystical language system that is out there somewhere . . . and that musicians improvising on their instruments are conduits for that language.” After a while, this explanation gets pretty mystical, as Shipp talks about music being “pulse”–“Charlie Parker was pure pulse.” He gets into religion, Christianity, “the Word,” “the light of the world,” William Burroughs, relativity, poetry, mysticism and much more. If you are a huge Shipp fan, then you may want to hear him expound. He does get in a few jokes, like when he talks about “stillness and extreme motion: Hey, jazz explores all of this. Jazz should be more popular! Why don’t they have jazz on AM radio? Everybody could sit around and night and think about the void, except Kim Kardashian seems a lot more exciting to think about . . . even though Kim is void.”
His words are intriguing but ultimately beside the point. And he knows it. You will go back to glorious, precise, searching Disc One. He tells you what he is about with words (“When playing I am aiming for that silence, for that meditational space where formlessness becomes form, where nothingness become something”) in this “Lecture on Nothingness,” but the goods are in the playing, in the play of sound and silence, of time and pulse. You go back to the music, the language of this artist, and it keeps you fascinated.
Unlike most “jazz” musicians, Matthew Shipp inhabits a space that he creates nearly from scratch every time he plays. That is not to say that he always improvises freely but rather than his technique is always pushing toward something that will astonish you. Unable to play the predictable, he seems to follow a path that unfolds before him without obvious precedent. That the path turns out of have form, that it turns out to take a logical journey, gets you every time. Gets you somewhere. To the next note. To the next feeling. It is music that makes you more human and more alive.