Charlie Brown, WOOVE
Performing with jazz greats such as David S. Ware, William Parker and Matt Maneri, Matthew Shipp is often considered one of the key players in the downtown jazz scene New York City. His most recent release, DNA on Thirsty Ear Records, has propelled his name into the world of college radio with the album charting on CMJs radio 200 ratings and number one on college jazz charts. With his combative style of 12-bar blues abstraction and intricate rhythm section interplay, Shipp has set his individual style apart from the largely unknown history of avant-garde' musicians.
With time, Shipp will evolve into one of the lasting heroes of today's jazz scene continuing his quest, when the masses recognize his true genius. With so many questions about the integrity and market for free jazz, Matthew Shipp has his eyes set upon himself and striving within the cruel environment that the world of music has created.
WOOVE: What got you started in music?
MATTHEW SHIPP: My parents were Episcopalians and in their church there was as an organist who would do this one anthem very similar to Gregorian chants and I fell in love with this anthem and wanted to play the organ.
WOOVE: How old were you then?
WOOVE: And when did you actually start playing piano?
Shipp: Five. I started taking piano lessons from the organist.
WOOVE: When did you start getting into jazz?
Shipp: When I was 12.
WOOVE: At that time what were some of your influences?
Shipp: At first it was just all church or classical music. You know, just whatever you study when you start studying piano. But, when I was 12, 1 heard Ahmad Jamal on TV and I just wanted to be a jazz player.
WOOVE: As you started to develop more of your own free style, what would you say influenced you as far as music goes?
Shipp: I always approach developing your own style as a melting pot of everything. To develop a style of your own, what you need to do is try to understand the essence of what makes music work in general and melt everything down and start from scratch again and rebuild. You can't come up with new building blocks for building blocks. And it's the same with building up a musical personality; you use the same 12 notes that anybody else has ever used but somehow they combine in a unique way. So, I've always dealt with it as taking all music and trying to melt it down and find out what makes it work and then starting from scratch, from one cell, and letting a new body build or develop. So, to answer your question, everything I've ever heard comes into play because you're trying to get to the bottom of what makes this all work.
WOOVE: When making your new album DNA, Did you use these ideas of building blocks and different body formats to develop your album?
Shipp: That has a part to do with it, but you know, there's multiple reasons I took the genetic theme for that album. But that's one thing, a reflection of having built my own music and my own style and the whole idea of building something from one cell into a whole body, you know the usual mystical theme of diversity within unity. All that entered into naming that album DNA.
WOOVE: With your style of music not being on the forefront of what's going on in the average American's mind, how do you feel the importance of college radio falls in?
Shipp: Well, college radio has been one of the saving graces, other than a few, fringe jazz avant-garde magazines and jazz critics that like the avant-garde, we wouldn't even have a platform, and college radio has been a platform. As far as jazz being played on college radio, if you really look at the totality of it, the avant-garde plays much more of a part than mainstream jazz. So, it's been a major platform for us; creating a vibe and getting the music out there. You know, it's not like a lot of the college kids are really listening to it, it's the people in the community. You'll have a college station that really plays it, and most of the people at the college are listening to Dave Matthews or something but, there's always a small core of people at the college that pay attention and then whatever town that's in there's a core of groupies or not groupies, but townies I mean, that are really picking up on the vibe. It's been a major part of us being able to create a vibe in America.
WOOVE: How did you feel going into Columbia to record with David S. Ware?
Shipp: Well, I kind of have a whole anti-corporate thing, but David's of an older generation. I mean I'm 38 and he's almost 50 and he's been doing this a long time, and for him it's a very good platform. I mean, Sony jazz has no vision and David just getting signed was pure luck, in a way that the A&R guy that signed him, Branford Marsalis, heard the quartet in Bien, France and got the job and gave us a call a few years later. If it wasn't for him, David would not be up there. For David, I think it's a good thing. For William Parker and myself, I don't think it would work.
WOOVE: What do you see as the main differences between putting an album out with David on Columbia and this last album you did with Thirsty Ear or doing something with Hat Hut?
Shipp: With jazz it's a very tricky thing. You're basically dealing politically in a world of business people and media people that have no idea where the music's coming from. So, in a sense, you're almost a token. They know you're supposed to be important in a certain way and they need some value of coolness up there. It's a very strange thing. The major benefit is that you can get the album anywhere; you can walk into the mall and find the album. But it's definitely a very tricky game. With the independent label you have a lot more basic care for the artist and the music in general. It's an uphill battle, you're dealing with limited distribution, limited promotional budgets, but the overall feel of how the thing's done usually rings a little more true. Thirsty Ear and I happen to be friends and they like me a lot and have really created a good environment for me to do that album and for it to get out there and it's felt like home. That's an important thing --to make the recording artist feel comfortable. They've cared about the music and they've cared about me. It's been a good experience for all of us. It just feels a lot better than being a number at a major label or just caught in the machine. Somehow it gets transmitted to people that there's care, that there's not just a corporate number crunching thing.
WOOVE: How do you feel about performing live compared to performing in the studio?
Shipp: They're different things and I just approach them each differently. They both are their own space-time continuums and they both have to be approached for what they are. I don't put one above the other. I mean, records are very important for musicians to have as documents. Then, live performances are very important things to get across who you are. So, I approach them both separately, and try to tap into the integrity of what both of the processes are.
WOOVE: What are some more memorable experiences you've had playing live?
Shipp: Like in a good or bad way?
WOOVE: Either One, I guess I'd rather hear about the good, but the bad is always there.
Shipp: Well, I think the thing about live performances is that after you're out there long enough, any performer who's been on the road for like a decade or more has a whole university of experiences you tend talk about. There's all kinds of characters you meet and all kinds of situations you deal with. You definitely see a whole slice of what humans are capable of, good or bad. This is a really funny experience. Once, with the David S. Ware Quartet, we were playing in Italy and we had a day off and we got booked for this disco. We thought we had somehow really got across what we were about, but it was seriously a gig in a disco, it was a bunch of teenagers there. And the whole time we were playing we had these teenagers just sitting in the corners making out. And here we are just doing what we do on stage. It was really funny. I mean, they were really polite and applauded at the end of the number. It was kind of like we were background music for these teenagers making out. You know it's just tough. That was a very unusual situation for a band of that sort to be in.
WOOVE: That would be pretty wild. Definitely.
WOOVE: I know last time I talked to you were talking about the big fight...
Shipp: Oh right! Oscar De LaHoya and Felix Trinidad. I talked to you about a week before the fight?
WOOVE: A couple days or so.
WOOVE: Well, I'm also reading Miles Davis' biography and just got to a part where he talks about his discipline and a big part of his being able to kick his heroin habit through boxing and through its discipline. I was wondering maybe if there was some sort of parallel where he took his style from a fighter like Sugar Ray and if you see that same sort of thing?
Shipp: Yeah, I definitely feel that I like the whole idea of quick jabs and a lot of foot movement. So, I think the point that you actually just made is that playing jazz instrumental music can be like a dance. And you can look at a very graceful boxer, whether it be a Sugar Ray Robinson or Muhamad Ali or Roy Jones Jr., you can look at a really graceful boxer as a dancer. I mean, a lot of the music that touches me the most is something that really does have a dance quality to it, or a graceful dancing is kept in mind. So, if you look at a boxing performer as a dancer, which I do, and I think that's what he [Miles Davis] was getting at, you can look at it as one boxer shadow boxing or two boxers together, dancing, being involved with the dance. You know Clark Terry, the trumpet player, was actually a boxer. I mean there are a lot of jazz musicians that had been boxers or are big boxing fans and there are a lot of boxers -- especially in the old days -- that were big jazz fans. Archie Moore was a big jazz fan... He was actually a jazz pianist and, to me, there is definitely a corelation in how rhythm is dealt with, in trying not to be predictable. In a boxers case, if he's predictable, he's going to get knocked out because the opponent's going to know his moves and be able to time and measure him. And that's not a good thing to have oxygen knocked out of your brain. Certainly a jazz musician doesn't want to be predictable and to me there are just a lot of parallels. That's if you're looking at boxing as a dance. If you look at the bottom line trying to knock someone out to get the victory, that's not how I'm looking at the experience of boxing. I'm looking at it in how graceful it can be with certain practitioners.
WOOVE: Have you ever boxed?
Shipp: A little,
WOOVE: Still do?
Shipp: No, no. When I was a little kid
WOOVE: I know you're also a big professional wrestling fan. How do boxing and wrestling parallel each other, if they do?
Shipp: Professional wrestling, for me, is a fantasy world for escape. When you're involved with a business that's as cold blooded as I'm in, you need some kind of mindless entertainment to escape. Sonny Rollins once said that," The only business possibly sicker than the music business is boxing." There's a lot of stress involved; professional wrestling is like a fantasy world, like comic book characters come alive, like a dream world, a complete fantasy world. And with as much stress as there is with the jazz business, I definitely need some escape. And there are other escapes that are, you know, not healthy.
WOOVE: So you're trying to stick with something that's not going to kill you.
WOOVE: Good... As far as music right now, what do you feel is really changing the way that society or just musicians themselves look at music?
Shipp: I'm not really keeping up with what people are doing. I'm just too self involved -- for survival reasons. Most people are self involved with what they're doing because they've got to survive, they tend to start seeing what they do as the center of the universe. It doesn't really allow you to objectively check out a lot of other stuff. I don't know. I mean, things seem so fragmented and synthetic that it's really hard for me to analyze what people are doing. It's very hard for everybody. You know how the rappers all have this cliche now, "we're trying to keep it real." Whatever. I don't know who's real and who's not. And how you could possibly be real in the middle of this? There's just so much fragmentation; things are just so synthetic. It's almost impossible to do anything unless you're rich to begin with. Just getting anything off the ground is almost impossible, unless you have [the] capital and are in a position to be able to lose money. It's just hard for me to really get a handle on how anyone gets where they get or manages to really keep above water So, to answer your question, I don't know. I know what touches me.
WOOVE: Let me rephrase the question, is there music or anything you've been involved with recently that's really changed your style?
Shipp: I'm past the point. I don't mean I'm past the point of where I hear things and I incorporate them or [am] influenced by them. But, as far as really trying [to] check out, like a new influence, no, I'm not actively involved in that because I've already kind of developed a music. I'm not really seeking fresh input these days. I hear things sometimes and I think, "like wow, that's cool." I mean, I'm not really hearing many people that have the courage to really discover who they are, or to be different or to combat the industry or anything. I'm not really hearing it that much. A couple of my peers, I feel like they're trying to do that. Like the guitarist Joe Morris, I feel that from his work. The last album that I had time to go out and buy that I was really moved by was by the band Cat Power. A lot of this is that I'm so busy that I don't really have time to check things out. The world is never poor, there's always people doing things and I'm sure there's plenty of people doing very strong things that I just haven't heard, but I'm really caught up in surviving in the middle of this right now, and that just doesn't leave me luxury of really checking out a lot of what's happening.
WOOVE: Future plans, what are you up to?
Shipp: I want to really be out on the road all the time and playing music. My future plans are to play music.
WOOVE: That's good to hear, glad your not stopping that.
WOOVE: Well that's all I've got, unless there's anything else you want to say?
Shipp: There's not really much to say. I always find that the themes never change. The themes that are themes now were themes in 1945 were themes in 1825.
WOOVE: Just working towards that common goal.
Shipp: Yeah, just trying to roll with the punches.
Shipp: Cause this thing is definitely an obstacle course and what's interesting about it is that there are certain things that work for you or for anybody and they are very few things and they are usually very basic and everything else are obstacles to those few things. It's basically always trying to get back to those few basic things. Everything else is just an obstacle. I think that's what everybody is dealing with. There's just so many layers of unnecessary complexity and unnecessary, dirt to get to those few basic things that you always need. Simplicity is everything that's important and complexity is everything that we're surrounded by. It's just really interesting that we all make things much harder than they need to be. And I'm trying to get through a lot of unnecessary layers. That's my quest right now.
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