From Right Now Onwards
Keyboard player, improviser and composer Matthew Shipp is one of those uncommon Ďjazzí musicians with more of an eye for the passing moment and whatís to come than the musicís positively intimidating past. Through numerous performances and records heís put together a body of work that challenges more than it comforts the listener, frequently blurring the line between composition and improvisation to the point where the distinction is irrelevant.
Taking all this into account, I put some questions to him.
OR: Are you of the opinion that jazz should consist of a lot more than what the marketing people would have us believe it is?
MS: I have no idea what jazz is, and I like it that way. My work reflects my interest in the piano and having a language that is me. If it fits some peopleís ideal of jazz that is fine with me, if it does not that is fine with me also. There is no such thing as jazz. That word lumps Louis Armstrong, Glen Miller, Cecil Taylor, Kenny G, to some extent Steely Dan, Boney James, Derek Bailey, all under the same umbrella. I guess they are all related in the fact that they consider themselves as playing music, but the intent, the worldview and the final products in sound are all completely different in all these artists, so to have a designation such as jazz is a random collection of letters to make a word. Whatever jazz is or isnít I have no idea of what it should or could consist of, nor do I give a fuck. I am dedicated to a language that comes through me to my instrument.
OR: In his book, "School for Cool, The Academic Jazz Program and the Paradox of Institutionalized Creativity,"
Eitan Y. Wilf highlights the importance given to "exemplary solo construction," in academic jazz programmes. To what extent, if any, do you think this represents an antithesis of ďtrue creativity?"
MS: What the fuck is "exemplary solo construction?" I guess Charlie Parker would be considered to have that trait, but he did not get to whatever that is by some teacher in a school talking about ďexemplary solo construction." If Charlie Parker does that, then does that mean that John Coltrane does not if he is using what some called a "sheet of sound," vertical approach? And where does that leave Albert Ayler, who even though he is seen as being ecstatic is actually a very intellectual player, where every scream has meaning? So in other words how do you qualify any of this?
From my experience on this planet, and being in music, it seems to me that it is about having a concept ó and the fundamental is having a sound on your instrument (which no one can teach you, itís a personal vision), and from there itís a matter of watering the plant of your personal worldview which informs the musical components that then fall into place based on the deep internal language you are chasing after; the language is chasing after you also, it is a living force.
OR: If the presence of jazz in the academy represents a fundamental break with the more fluid, mercurial evolution of the music for the better part of its existence, do you think that the sheer number of jazz graduates amounts to supply outstripping demand?
MS: In short yes, but this is very complex.
Letís get real. The jazz academy is one of the few cottage industries in the jazz universe which makes some money. It offers a steady pay check to musicians who canít get enough work to create more musicians who will never get any work. I donít mean any of that to be cruel, but it is the truth. There is also a cottage industry of writing method books and other educational materials. And the major jazz magazines could not exist if it were not for the jazz education paradigm, for jazz college programs do the bulk of advertising in major jazz magazines, so the whole ecology of what constitutes the jazz industry nowadays would collapse without jazz education, although the approach is creating a lot of people who will never be able to find work in this industry.
But as anything is not a one-way street, one teacher somewhere might make a big, big impact on one student, that student might be the next great thing on any instrument, or might even get out of music and go to med school, or be able to use some of what he / she learned in jazz school as life lessons and go on to develop a cure for cancer. Who knows where anything leads to?
OR: Thereís a risk in drawing up a dichotomy between the formal and schooled on the one hand and the unsophisticated and primitive on the other. This is usually pertinent in the case of jazz in view of how many of the most significant figures in the musicís history learned their trade on the job and through natural curiosity, as opposed to taking a few years out in order to be taught it by "experts." Given its place in the cultural firmament, do you think jazz either does or might occupy a unique niche in the teaching and dissemination of the humanities?
MS: Yes, I do, although Iím not sure exactly where you were going with this question. I do think the major thing as far as being a player goes is your own brainstem, the vibrational energy of the universe and how that aligns up with each other to create a personal language on an instrument, and that is all done through natural curiosity, passion, maybe a bit of insanity and being around and getting experience with others that have sort of done what you want to do. Again, Iím not sure where you were going with this question, but I do think education about jazz to non-players has a lot to offer anyone or any field.
OR: Turning to your own music now. It seems to me that youíre one of but a handful of musicians out there with a strong desire to make music that asks something of the audience, instead of reiterating long established, acknowledged, and thus reassuring tropes. Would you agree with this analysis?
MS: Well I think there are a lot of people out here who are trying to or actually really doing substantial work that does not fall into cliched ways of thinking. I donít have a choice, the only thing I know for whatever reason, is to try to be true to my voice. So I donít even think of it as trying to do something new, though I am aware of it in every second I play, trying to be the fresh inhalation of the cosmos at that second, meaning that even if I played a clichť it would manifest as a fresh experience at that moment.
There are a lot of brainwashed people out here, and even brainwashed musicians have some poetry that comes out of there instrument on some occasions. And yes, the institutions have been a part of brainwashing some people, but in some ways you canít put it all on the institutions. We are all enculturated with fear and the need to fit in, and letís face it if you come up with a new voice on your instrument you are going to seem queer to a lot of people. The schools will tell you youíre wrong; you could never, ever win, say, some monstrosity like the Thelonious Monk Competition (so ironic to name a competition after someone who would have lost the competition with his own name), and it will take the jazz world 20 years and more to begin to figure out what you are doing, so the search for truth on your instrument would and could be the only thing propelling you forward. Yes, itís a lonely thing....
OR: Given the shifts in everyday human experience, whether induced by increased technology in our lives or otherwise, do you feel the audience for demanding music is contracting or expanding? Does the audienceís effort now come much harder?
MS: Hard question for me to answer. I think the audience is about the same because people always need what we have to offer; there are always souls who need the spiritual food that musicians like me and many others have to give. The more complex and fucked up the world is the more people need what we have to give; of course the world has always been fucked up.
As far as a direct answer to how maybe technology has changed some peopleís central nervous system, and how that relates to not being distracted and being able to take in what we send out, I would have to feel that this all balances out somehow - for every reason I give that people are distracted and canít deal, Iíd find an example of just the opposite. One thing I will say, this music, whatever the fuck I mean by that, does fit into information theory, and there is a vortex of information being ejaculated at all times within this, so maybe it is so pertinent in this time period that dickheads canít comprehend that. Maybe the cosmos meant it to be like that.
OR: Finally, what does the future hold for you?
MS: Well I will get up in the morning, brush my teeth, eat breakfast, answer emails, practice piano - and continue to go after my voice on the piano. Hopefully a bunch of gigs will continue to come in so I can continue to pay my bills. Then one day when I get enough of this planet, and this planet gets enough of me, I will drop the fuck dead.
As far as the answer to what I am up to in future is concerned, I will have a trio CD coming out on Thirsty Ear Records in January 2017, ďPiano Song," which will be my last CD for that label. I have other things dropping on other labels though, after that, although I will stay on at Thirsty Ear as curator and artistic director of the Blue series.
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