The Alluring Solo Art of Pianist Matthew Shipp
By Howard Reich
The jazz world does not lack for fine pianists, but those who can sustain listener interest through an extended solo set always have been in shorter supply.
These days, few pack their soliloquies with more information, drama and free-ranging thought than Matthew Shipp, who proves it on a gripping new album, the aptly named "I've Been to Many Places" (Thirsty Ear). Though the recording won't be released until Sept. 9, Chicago listeners will get an early listen on Aug. 27, when Shipp holds the stage alone at PianoForte Studios, on South Michigan Avenue.
Better still, he'll be playing a Fazioli grand piano, a high-toned instrument with a uniquely translucent sound utterly unlike the weightier tone of Steinways and other excellent pianos. The chance to hear Shipp playing new music on a Fazioli in a concert-hall setting does not come along often.
Even for Shipp, whose resume includes tenures with such formidable ensembles as saxophonist David S. Ware's quartet and multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell's Note Factory, the prospect of sitting alone before those 88 keys is daunting, he says.
"What's challenging about it is that you have to have a very specific concept for it," explains Shipp. "Because there are a lot of great pianists who aren't going to have a concept for solo.
"And I don't want to say who they are, because I don't want anybody coming at me," adds the pianist, with a laugh.
Well how about naming those whom Shipp feels have a real voice?
"There are pianists who have very specific solo concepts Cecil Taylor's one, Keith Jarrett is one," says Shipp, who indeed cites two strong, if quite dissimilar soloists. Taylor's tempests at the keyboard surely are far removed from Jarrett's meticulously sculpted, quasi-classical improvisations.
"And it has nothing to do with whether you like their (musical) language or not," adds Shipp. "They do actually have concepts for solo piano."
So does Shipp, whose pianism sounds more crisply voiced than Taylor's and less rarefied than Jarrett's. Ultimately, though, Shipp's solo orations are far afield from either of those pianists and from just about everyone else, as well, a point he proves throughout "I've Been to Many Places."
From the classically tinged ruminations of the title track to a lush transformation of George Gershwin's "Summertime" to the rhythmic eruptions and clashing melodic lines of "Brain Shatter," Shipp's solos veer in multiple musical directions.
One hastens to add that none of this is easy listening. On the contrary, Shipp's solo music brims with influences of many fearless musical thinkers, among them the American iconoclast Charles Ives, the Viennese 12-tone innovator Arnold Schoenberg and the aforementioned jazz titan Taylor.
In any event, piano devotees who prefer to sit back, tap their toes and enjoy a pleasant melody probably should look elsewhere. But those who wish to hear a valued intellect grappling with musical ideas across the full range of the keyboard will find plenty to ponder in this work.
To Shipp, this album represents not just a series of essays in sound but, beyond that, a kind of summation of where he has been in his travels with Ware, Mitchell and others. As if to emphasize the point, he has chosen to revisit specific compositions that he has recorded before, having played "Tenderly" with the David S. Ware Quartet on "Earthquation," "Summertime" in a duet with bassist William Parker on "Zo" and two Shipp originals "Waltz" and "Reflex" with Parker and violist Matt Maneri in the Matthew Shipp String Trio on "Expansion, Power, Release."
"Your experiences definitely shape you," says Shipp. "For instance, I know 'Summertime' on 'Zo' is completely different than 'Summertime' on 'I've Been to Many Places.' How I got to all the places, how I got from A to Z, I don't know.
"Is Z any better than A? I don't know. But I just know I've ended up somewhere different. Nothing freezes. Everything is always flowing."
It certainly is when Shipp is at the keyboard, as he was last summer, leading his trio before a standing-room-only crowd at Constellation, on North Western Avenue. Though producing a profusion of ideas, Shipp somehow maintained clarity of sound and thought, his all-over-the-keyboard pianism a feast to behold (with empathetic support from bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey).
When he played an hour-plus solo show in 2006 at the long-gone HotHouse, the massive quality of his chord clusters, the density of his textures and the complexity of his rhythms made a striking impression. Judging by the music on "I've Been to Many Places," Shipp has sharpened and refined his approach to the keyboard since then, though one hesitates to leap to conclusions too readily. The unpredictability of Shipp's work suggests he might be playing something totally different next week at PianoForte.
To keep in fighting trim, Shipp says he practices keyboard exercises of his own making and plays a lot of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose "Well-Tempered Clavier," of course, is the bible for all keyboardists with a sense of history. But practicing alone in your room isn't quite the same as trying to build an argument alone at the piano, with an audience hanging on every note or not.
When Shipp performs alone, he sounds as if he has very nearly forgotten that anyone else is in the room, which can be dangerous.
"I do get engrossed in my own space," he acknowledges. "And I wouldn't know how not to. But, at the same time, you are sensitive to the vibe in the room. I'm not going to say I completely go inside myself and I'm not cognizant of whatever the vibe is in the room, but I would say I'm within myself.
"I'm trying to be introspective. I'm being more honest with the music."
That much is for sure.
Ive Been To Many Places
... available at Amazon.com
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