Matthew Shipp

Matthew Shipp "The Root of Things" Interview
Search and Restore
by Samuel Weinberg

Pianist Matthew Shipp has recently released The Root of Things (Relative Pitch Records), a great new record with his trio of bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey. Through its six tracks, Shippís trio presents a musical relationship that is immediately felt to be deep and grounded, evidenced most concretely in the subtlety and fluidity of the transitions throughout the record. This trio is one which has been together for five years, and this record indicates that there are many more great things to come from these three going forth.

SW: I spoke to Shipp recently about this record, and a few other things, which you can read below. Embedded within the interview, you will also find a stream of the title track ďThe Root of ThingsĒ, the haunting opener of the record, which Matthew and I speak of.

I want to start by talking about a few things that are extra-musical, that seem to surround the music and are written about in the liner notes and about the title of the record. What does ďThe Root of ThingsĒ mean to you, because itís elaborated on in the liner notes and seems to be at the heart of the concept of this record, or how you were thinking about your relationship to music and this trio in particular.

Matthew Shipp: Well, one is always trying to dig deeper and deeper into whoever you are, or whatever the situation is, in this case this trio. And I think that if anyone is successful in getting into the essence of what anything is, then itís a very simple thing in a certain wayóitís just that essence, and thereís not a lot of complexity around it, in a certain way. So the title has to do with a continual quest to understand both yourself and your situation. And to get a really clear picture of what that is.

SW: Sure. And it seems that, tied up in that notion, is a relation or understanding of some sort of tradition. And that seems related to that tune ďJazzitĒ, which I found to be a rather compelling song. Iíll preface this by saying that I would find this to be a stupid question in many other contexts, but I began wondering about your relationship to jazz music, per se.

In the liner notes there are allusions to Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, Andrew Hill and there are some moments on the record of unmistakably hard swing, with its own feel, but surely within a certain tradition. So to what degree are those sorts of considerations present with you?

MS: [laughs] Well, Iím a jazz musician; thatís what I studied and spent my time doing as a kid. So, you know, I donít think that you can escape your background. So whatever shaped you, has shaped you and thatís going to manifest itself. Iím not trying to escape my past, but Iím also not trying to be a prisoner to it. Iím just trying to play some music. But I love what is traditionally called jazz music, whether it be Ellington, Ornette Coleman, aspects of Bill Evans, Andrew Hill, and aspects of Albert Ayler. Those are sound patterns that I love and I canít escape that. But, again, since Iím trying to get to the root of things, Iím always trying to discover what makes me click, despite all of that.

Even though I love all of that, thereís a part of me thatóI donít want to say escapes tradition, because weíre all a product of some sort of traditionóbut there seems to me to be something inherent in all of us thatís different, so Iím just trying to really get to the root of that. And language is a very strange thing, since none of us own it. Itís energy; itís something out here. So even in getting to something that is yourself requires that you tap into a field of language and it might kind of sound like certain things or it might point in something else that has happened, but mainly because we share in this same field of language.

SW: Yeah and certainly having a piano trio of bass and drums forces you to tap into that field and respond to that tradition and language in an even more intense way.

MS: Yeah. A jazz piano trio is a standard, standard way of going about things. So there are certain things that happen if you have one, just because of that configuration.

SW: Right, well can I ask if there are differences in what youíre trying to explore than, letís say, the duo record you made with Michael Bisio? Because a piano/bass duo is much less of a common instrumentation! So what went into the decision to make a duo record?

MS: Well, honestly Mike asked me if I wanted to do a duo record [laughs]. It was kind of that simple! And also he knew the people at Relative Pitch Records. So Michael had talked to those guys, then asked me, so that was that as far as how the duo record happened. Plus, I had just released a trio record on Thirsty Ear called Elastic Aspects, so there was no reason to do a trio record at that time because one had just been released. But now was time for another trio album. I had just done a solo album on Thirsty Ear, so now was the time.

SW: This trio has been together for a bit of time?

MS: 2009, yeah.

SW: So do you feel that thereís been some growth, or some further digging into the root of things?

MS:Oh yeah! I definitely think that we had a sound from the beginning. The first gig we did was in Sardinia, in Italy and I remember feeling really good about the gig immediately. But I certainly feel that the sound has taken on something like a life of its ownóitís a strong sound, an elastic sound, and one that is really integrated with all of the three members. So I think that has just deepened that relationship between the musicians, and thatís really what Iím looking for, because once that happens, youíre really free to go anywhere within the music because you really trust the sound of the group. That has really freed me up.

SW: Yeah, and one can hear that on the record, because the transitionsóespecially in rhythmic feelsóare really fluid.

MS: Right, right. And I think that thatís whatís really evolved. The sound was there from the beginning. To me, transitions are everything. If transitions are happening, then I know that the concepts are happening. Transitions are kind of magical, because they either work or they donít. So when theyíre happening, that always tells me that the general concept of the group is happening, too.

SW: Totally! And I think everybody has an unaccompanied feature on the record, is that right? Which to me signifies a certain trust on your part, in wanting to showcase the talents of these guys. And you have a nice 4 minute unaccompanied piano intro on the last track.

MS:Yeah I trust myself! [laughs]

SW: Maybe we can talk about some of the tracks, in specific. I love the title track because the melody is just so memorable and simple. And thereís this repeating phrase which seems to haunt the piece. So Iím wondering to what degree, if at all, the stuff we were just talking aboutóabout finding the root of things and digging into essencesóis reflected in that piece.

MS: Well, hereís what I would say about that piece: people always think of free-jazz as just making stuff up on the spot. But I operate as a composer as any other jazz composer. That tune is just a tune. It sets the tempo and the mood of the album. I was just going for a haunting little theme, with some variations on it. And like you said, itís pretty simple. But I think it does set a tone, and that was what I was trying to do.

I also think that the gesture of the piece really hints at the whole history of the jazz piano trio: whether it be the Ahmad Jamal Trio, Bill Evans Trio, Paul Bley Trio, or even the Matthew Shipp trio. It was my way of dealing with intervalic structure and melodic structures and dealing with something that generates some improvisation, but for lack of a better word, itís just a nice little trio ditty [laughs]!


. . . available at Relative Pitch Records


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