Matthew Shipp

Robert Hicks, Gallery

Young jazz pianist Matthew Shipp is part of an emerging post-John Coltrane school of musicians on New York City's Lower East Side. His main interest, he says, is to expand the language of jazz, and the sources that have influenced him come from all over the map.

As he performs, Shipp curves his wiry frame over the piano, emitting thunderous block chords which are quickly followed by gentle tonal clusters. There are echoes of Chopin and Bartok, and even an occasional reference to cocktail music. "During my apprenticeship years between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two, I worked as a cocktail pianist. I don't really do standards now, but some of my ideas are based on abstractions from cocktail music. I'd really like to explore the weird side of cocktail music on an album. That way I can be avantgarde and old ladies can still like me."

Under the tutelage of pianist Ran Blake and Hankus Netsky at the New England Conservatory of Music, Shipp began to see the connection between his music and film.

"I admired Ran Blake's playing and, though his style doesn't directly influence mine, I gathered from him a cinematic way of approaching music. What I like to do is start with a very basic relationship and reorder things in a lot of different ways like film blocks," says Shipp.

The legacy of free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor doesn't escape Shipp either. "Taylor's a major influence on my playing, but I try to stay away from call-and-response patterns because Taylor exhausted them. I'm more interested in creating an expanded jazz language."

Shipp's percussive style is fraught with lyricism which demands attention for its rich contrasts. On his new Silkheart release, Points -- The Matthew Shipp Quartet (SH-CD 129), Shipp pays tribute to the work of two great jazzmen: the orchestral suites of Duke Ellington, and the African polyrhythms of Coltrane's music.

"I wanted to expand the basic relationships of a jazz quartet into a fuller orchestral sound like Duke Ellington," comments Shipp. "I start with a core idea and shuffle the individual players through a series of events that always refer back to the core idea."

On his recent release, Circular Temple -- The Matthew Shipp Trio (Quinton Records OTN I), Shipp creates four movements, beginning with Ellington's '20s "jungle music", and stretching out on a neo-bop segment dedicated to Thelonicus Monk. The third section highlights bassist William Parker's sparse phrasing and the piece concludes with allusions to Africa as a unifying principle.

Apart from his work as a leader, Shipp regularly performs in the David S. Ware Quartet. Tenor saxist Ware's new efforts, The Great Bliss Project, Vols. I and 2 (Silkheart SH-CD 127, 128), feature Shipp, as does percussionist Marc Edwards' Black Queen (Alpha Phonics APCDI). Shipp also appears on Ware's masterful Flight of i (DIW DIW856), which includes two jazz standards -- "There Will Never Be Another You" and "Yesterdays." Shipp recently toured the South with prominent jazz saxist Roscoe Mitchell, who co-founded the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

"I'm a young-blood pianist," remarks Shipp, "and I'm really excited about exploring new post-Coltrane ideas with Mitchell. He's a great innovator who has given me the opportunity to express some of my own ideas about improvisation."

Shipp's past in Wilmington, Delaware, isn't far behind him. Encouraged by his organist uncle, he studied with Robert "Boysie" Lowery, who taught trumpet great Clifford Brown. "Lowery always emphasized learning basic principles -- being able to play in time and to fragment lines according to time. That way you can always know where you are in your phrasing," says Shipp. "He introduced me to Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker records."

Later on Shipp went to Philadelphia to study with Dennis Sandole, Coltrane's former teacher. "Sandole tailors his instruction to individual students," he says. "He reinforced my notion of placing notes based on a mathematical system; I became more attuned to my own inner logic."

A longtime fan of boxing, Shipp envisions a project in which he can use boxers and their special brand of movement. "It'll be a tightly rehearsed live dance, but I want them to get into their own groove as boxers in response to my music. I plan to use bassist William Parker for this project, too."

Shipp's piano vocabulary is very personal, but it embraces a wide variety of greats from Bach and Bartok to McCoy Tyner and Bud Powell. "I really like Lonnie Tristano and Bill Evans. But Duke Ellington's the master. I love Fats Waller and Art Tatum. Tatum's a real space cadet. Some people don't realize how truly modern he is."

So it is with Shipp --- unmistakably modern, but wasn't that cocktail music I heard in the background?

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