Matthew Shipp

Avant Indie

The Indie Rock Nation doesn't make much room for avant-garde jazz pianists. Actually, room for just one. Matthew Shipp.

This is not to say anyone who owns a Yo La Tengo CD will automatically have one of Shipp's 29 solo albums, but it's a damn sight more likely than finding something by Cecil Taylor or Andrew Hill.

"I was around when there was this invasion of free jazz into punk labels," the New York-based Shipp says of a window in the mid-'90s. "I think when 'Teen Spirit' broke for Nirvana, the term alternative music took hold, and it was such a loosely defined term that anything outside the mainstream could fit. There was a period when underground rock tried to encompass the possibility of all sound worlds, and you had guys like Thurston Moore and Henry Rollins championing the cause."

Rollins signed the pianist to his 2.13.61 label for a rather brief stint. Indie rock's openness movement turned out to be more of a spasm, but not before Shipp became what he calls a "point person" for alt-rockers interested in testing new horizons. He signed with Thirsty Ear, another indie rock imprint, and was named curator of its Blue Series of outré music.

In many ways, Shipp, 46, is the perfect poster boy for musical cross-pollination. He's intellectually serious but has a sense of humor. He calls himself a jazz musician but spent most of his career undermining its orthodoxies. He's done recording projects with beatmeisters, DJs and sound synthesists, as well as a coterie of such likeminded improvisers as bassist William Parker, saxophonist David S. Ware and violinist Mat Maneri.

A good part of his mission has been about tearing down walls between genres and seeking commonality. "My way of looking at it is that music is patterns of energy," Shipp says. "You can't escape different idioms; they get manifested in different cultures and languages, but beneath that I've always been interested in what is the common energetic unit."

After a period of extensive experimentation involving various ensembles and guest programmers, Shipp has returned to his most basic format. His current CD, One (Thirsty Ear), is a solo piano disc, his fourth. (His EMIT performance will likewise be solo.)

"It has reminded me of my all-encompassing love for the instrument," he says. "It's a reminder that what I really am is a pianist. I love the sensuousness of the sound I get on piano, the swimming in it. It's challenging and fun at the same time, and I love being able to generate all that music from my brain to my body to the instrument."

Shipp's solo work is full of thunderous chords, knotty lines and hard-won notes. He counters passages of percussive bombast with fleeting moments of lyricism. His pieces are angular and unpredictable, and they rarely swing in any traditional sense.

In many respects, Shipp's pianist journey began typically: classical lessons as a youngster in Wilmington, Del.; a sudden fascination with jazz at age 12, after which he absorbed the masters: Ellington, Monk, Coltrane, Bill Evans. Through it all, though, he had a creeping sense that he was not going to end up a conventional artist. "My mother had met Monk, and I had another friend who talked about him a lot," Shipp recounts. "I got off on this image of the iconoclastic composer who creates his own world."

One night in his early 20s, he played a mainstream quartet gig, "and it was horrible," the pianist says with a laugh. "A friend of mine, who was older, said that if all I was doing was playing like Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans, there would be many bad nights to come."

At age 23, a few weeks before matriculating at the New England Conservatory of Music, Shipp had his epiphany. While doing a duet jam with his friend, tenor saxophonist Gary Joyner, he unleashed some inner creative beast. "Gary was playing in a post-Albert Ayler [avant-garde] mode, and I just went into something," Shipp says, traces of awe still in his voice. "I didn't know what I was doing. It was beyond magical. We went to a pizza parlor afterward and listened to the tape, and thought we'd discovered an elixir to cure the world, thought that anyone who was sick and heard it would be healed, thought that politicians would hear it and work to change the ills of the world. When something that profound happens, you end up in la-la land for awhile."

It should be noted that Matthew Shipp is laughing heartily as he recounts his long-ago moment of wonder. He still has the cassette, he says, and the music still holds up.

Shipp plans to remain in the solo piano milieu well into '07. In the meantime, he wants to break free of the geographical strictures most jazz musicians place on themselves. He wants to venture out of Northeastern cultural meccas and into the hinterlands. It's a move that only a handful of recent jazz-based artists -- Medeski, Martin & Wood and Steven Bernstein come readily to mind -- have managed to pull off.

Shipp has had some experience playing for small crowds of the unwashed (my term, not his). "It can be new to certain places," he says. "There can be a fresh energy, a less jaded energy. In New York, you can get the feeling that the audience has heard it all. When you play in a place you don't come through regularly, it can work either way: They can be excited to hear it, or nobody comes out."

And here Matthew Shipp laughs again. "If people do come out, they seem to really appreciate that you've come into their neck of the woods."

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