Recorded at Tufts University in 2017 as part of an event called “Art, Race, and Politics in America,” Seraphic Light, performed by old acquaintances Daniel Carter, William Parker and Matthew Shipp, may only hint at politics. But this music is exactly the kind of open, free conversation that our democracy desperately needs.
Pianist Shipp and bassist Parker are among the giants of New York’s Downtown free improvisation scene, having anchored countless bands and recording dates that blend structure and freedom in various free-flowing formats. The multi-instrumentalist Carter is less heralded, but has been a critical part of the scene for just as long, blending into every project with strong tone and melodic sense. He plays, here: flute, clarinet, trumpet, tenor saxophone, alto saxophone and soprano saxophone. On each, he sounds natural and fluid, and he often plays them in series, improvising in turn on these long, wholly improvised tracks.
There are three phases to this single, long improvisation, titled “Seraphic Light.” “Seraphic” usually means angelically beautiful and morally pure, and the music reaches for this in various ways. Mainly, there is a circular, incantatory quality to much of the trio’s work: the music swirls toward revelation in repeating cycles that are largely defined by the instruments that Carter serially brings into the mix.
At the start, for example, Shipp plays a rhythmically regular set of arpeggios that are largely diatonic and open, moving through limited harmonic motion. Carter’s flute and Parker’s bass find their places in the motion, contributing to a “pretty,” inviting soundscape that largely avoids dissonance or textural abrasion. The motion of the band, though circular, still travels, with Shipp finding percussive opportunities and with Carter moving from his airy woodwind to a smooth-toned but bright trumpet sound. Together, the pair lift the sense of attack to a slightly more pointed level. Half-way through “Part One,” Shipp takes off on a solo that consists of a single-note line in his right hand that‘s quick and boppish, though the harmonic content remains more open and less curlicued than actual bebop. It is a great contrast, but soon Carter re-enters on tenor saxophone and establishes a more languid pace with Parker in duet. Shipp comes back with a series of ringing chords struck in syncopated pairs.
The music gets increasingly involved after this point, with the sense of conversation going deeper and getting more complex. “Part Two” features greater dissonance, but it is rarely the honking, squealing kind of free jazz that made some music in the ‘60s and ‘70s hard to listen to. Carter typically keeps is tone clean or proper, running his lines in gentle circles. Shipp is more likely to create small, roiling nests of notes that move quickly in circles, and Parker moves freely between bowed bass lines and plucked rhythms. The band takes a break before “Part Three” but then continues this approach, with Shipp playing at an incredible level of invention. Often, the pianist sounds like he is channeling Bach as much as Monk or Cecil Taylor, creating intricate two or three-part inventions with lines crossing in contrary motion, then Carter and Parker joining the fray, turning it into a real panel discussion.
Eventually, “Part Three” finds the musicians chancing upon a thrilling triple rhythm, something that Shipp picks up from a Carter lick that becomes the band’s new groove. It repeats then slowly disintegrates into a more spare section, but one still spun around on a circular groove. The conversation quiets even in its urgency. The journey sounds like its coming home.
Improvised music like this perhaps eludes verbal description, and that is the point. The emotion or ideas that travel through this kind of sound abstraction couldn’t be put into words—that’s why it’s music. If you spend the time to absorb the music and have an ear for this kind of spinning spontaneity, the effect is energizing, like hearing a stirring debate or witnessing ravishing dance.
The only advice a reviewer can reasonably give is to try this kind of music out. Let it ravish you, sing to you, compel you, confound you, inspire you. Matthew Shipp, William Parker and Daniel Carter are wizards together, and all you have to do is let them cast their spell.