Matthew Shipp


Inside the Avenue B Social Club in New York, there are shiny wood tables and black walls, clinking ice, chatter. And there's jazz: unidentified, brilliant, '60's-Blue-Note style, with horns on the run and piano stylishly expansive. A rapid-fire language coolly deployed, the music sparkles and kicks away in the distance, its witty soul conversation running circles around us.

The crowd grows, a breezy social din spreading to every corner of the room. But Blue Note is gone now, and there's new music in its place. New, because it's being played on the spot. New because it doesn't coolly converse in the distance, but intrudes on your thought processes and puts an end to any kind of chitchat. New because the piano is no longer stylishly expanding. It's being assaulted.

The perpetrator turns out to be a lanky, frozen-faced black man hunched on a bench, arms pretzeled and pumping over the low end of the keyboard. This is Matthew Shipp. He's calm, he's serious, he's burying his instrument in a hailstorm of clanging repetition.

His partner is a stocky black man in a sweatshirt, bobbing behind an upright bass. He's been given the task of providing chaos with a pulse. This is William Parker. Nimble, busy, austere, he works mightily to push the pianist's squall forward, then breaks off to chase down his own frenetic abstractions. Together, they swim and survive in the churning undertow of jazz.

But Shipp pulls himself out. He moves up the keys helterskelter and settles into a delicate figure, periodically washing it away in right-hand runs and left-hand crash. While most jazz piano consists of abstraction and substitution around a distinct tune, Shipp here creates the opposite effect: that of a stormy sonic world receding towards melody, forging its own style of lyricism.

The interplay with Parker tightens. There's a sustained groove from his bass now: he's digging in. Shipp responds with a blues vamp. But rather than let it gather momentum, they work against their own jazz fluency. Shipp sets boogie-woogie at sea, lets it drift and warp, then slowly dissolves it in his jittery right hand. He glisses up a waterfall of notes, then finds one phrase and hammers it to a jarringly percussive extreme, punching a hole through our expectations of polite linear progress.

In Shipp's music, jazz language is questioned, its building blocks brought out, turned over, smashed to bits, rejoined in an unsettling new speech pattern. Chords and lines mass in a towering sound sculpture - the Empire State Building as a monument to Bud Powell.

The crowd seem overwhelmed at first, then are drawn in as the language is grasped. What's being played is not as off-putting as it first seemed. The typical give-and-take we think of as jazz has simply been squeezed. What's left is aesthetic intensity and a sense of logical dislocation. It's music that involves not just improvising, but asking instinctively at every step, how much can we say?

Shipp is a downtowner, an "out" jazz stalwart, a 37-year-old man who lives with his wife in New York. He's been on the scene for 14 years, and made a living with his music for the last six. He's modest, speaks in terse rasps, and his face, with the youthful elasticity of someone 10 years younger, reveals. every quick-change of emotion.

As a kid he dug the playing of the organist at his church in Wilmington, Delaware and began studying with her. He had his jazz epiphany with Coltrane's A Love Supreme, and later he studied with Coltrane's teacher, Dennis Sandole.

"A Love Supreme appealed to me because it turned music into a mystical experience," he explains. "I had played church music, and it's still I there in what I do now. But when I heard that record, it seemed to be taking jazz beyond anything I'd heard; it had a meditative, spiritual thing that was like something from another world. I guess it was the first record that made me realize how far jazz could go.

"I'd been playing since I was 5, but when I was 12 or so I began buying jazz albums and getting into the different piano players. I was playing straight-ahead, sort of in a McCoy Tyner style, but hearing and reading about everyone else, too. Cecil Taylor was one of my heroes, and Andrew Hill. I had a stack of articles about keyboardists that I'd practically memorized.

"There's a church element to what I do, but I'm also a child of free jazz. There's clearly a tradition that mixes the two. In people like Coltrane and Sun Ra, you got jazz that reaches for something mystical. No specific religion -- but music as a religion."

Shipp's music is not without earthy touches, however. It's informed by something at the other end of Afro-American culture, a place far outside the church: the boxing ring.

In the liner notes to his quartet album, The Flow of X, Shipp writes, "As the ear and eye become trained one learns the complex patterns that underlie the boxing match or the jazz solo -- the theater of Kinetic Gesture -- a kaleidoscope of intelligent quicksilver action generates a structure of intense beauty."

In conversation, he adds, "I see so many things in free jazz that relate to boxing. Boxing has a syncopated rhythm, the way two boxers move around a ring together. It's a dance, really like jazz. There's danger in both... a lot more in boxing, of course. But in jazz you feel that same danger; anything can happen, even total collapse. You're thinking on your feet in jazz, just like with boxing; to be able to do it well, you have to have your basics completely rehearsed and learned. Your musical skills have to reach the point where they become reflexes. Then you can become spontaneous."

The merging of black religious music with jabbing improvisation, the making of intense beauty out of relentless freedom, was at the heart of free jazz in its early '60s beginnings, whether it took the form of Ornette Coleman's liberated melody-making or Albert Ayler's radical energizing of spirituals and Now Orleans marches. For much of the '70s and '80's, players worked out new possibilities offered by this music, finding ways to organize it collectively, advance it structurally, and fuse it with everything from European art music to modem dance to the noisier realms of postpunk.

Shipp is the latest name to join that tradition, one of the few players who have come to prominence (a relative term in this severely underground music) just this decade. Along with, among others, Charles Gayle, William Parker, and David Ware (who've all been playing for rather longer), he's helped re-establish the music's freewheeling energy. They've stuck primarily to small combos, exploring the varieties and rhythms, as well as deepening the textures, of that original energy.

In free jazz, Shipp and company inherit an essentially open and experimental tradition. They also inherit a music dogged by controversy from its inception. Its qualifications as jazz, its potential for development, its value as music -- all have been questioned, first by older musicians, now by a younger group, famously led by neotraditionalist trumpeter/composer Wynton Marsalis and his cohorts, and by critics like Stanley Crouch.

I got an immediate reaction when I raise this subject. "I've been sick," Shipp rasps, "but if we're gonna talk about Wynton, I'm going to have to get a drink..."

"I play music because I'm interested in the mind," he continues. "I'm interested in what I can build. Some say the big movements in jazz have passed, but a guy like Monk wasn't thinking of a movement: he had a structure in mind.

"If you listen to Wynton, you have to put that structure out of your head. Sure, I have an interest in jazz history -- I love all that stuff -- but I'm not interested in playing jazz history. Wynton's people and the guys I play with couldn't co-exist in one room. We're in totally different head spaces. When I listen to his stuff, it sounds so mechanical. So different from... well, I heard a tape of Ellington composing... he says to someone in the band, 'I want you to play, hmm, perfume...' "

"I'd play punk rock before I'd force myself back into [the Marsalis] kind of jazz. Punk's more in line with jazz history, even-the freshness of it. I love that Sleater-Kinney record! I'm a huge fan of people like Public Enemy or Kool Keith."

"And there is so much great 'out' jazz or whatever you call it. Like Bloodcount. They're from a slightly different school.... I'm from an East Coast avant-garde, a more pulse-oriented tradition, not that I want to put us in schools.... But that band, they're state-of-the-art, for sure."

Crouch and Marsalis object to avant-jazz on musical, historical, racial, and artistic grounds. The first three arguments I'll deal with elsewhere, but the artistic complaint basically runs as follows: in their quest to find "the new" at all costs, out-jazzers have sacrificed musical competence and pushed each other into some perversely obscure experimental territory far removed from jazz.

"I play jazz because I'm interested in what I can build. Some say the big movements in jazz have passed, but a guy like Monk wasn't thinking of a movement: he had a structure in mind"

Now if someone from another planet asked me "What is jazz?" I doubt if the first example I'd play would be a Matthew Shipp CD. But that doesn't mean it isn't jazz. From its beginnings, jazz music has shared a sensibility with other 20th-century US arts. Jazz originated as a grafting of Afro-American musical styles onto European instruments. That middle ground -- where a new approach is found in the use and subversion of an old European one --- is also where the century's most emblematic painters, writers, and composers have stood. In the '20s, jazz was the soundtrack to America's entrance into the post-World War I modern age. In the '40s, with bebop, the music entered Modernism itself, and helped spur a creative dissension that began to surface in all areas of American culture in the '50s.

The high-art connection became explicit with free jazz: Ornettee Coleman even hung a Jackson Pollock painting on the cover of his epochal 1961 album Free Jazz (just reissued in a remastered version by Rhino/Atlantic). It's a connection that has persisted through the '80s and into the '90s downtown New York scene, in the postmortem fragmentations of John Zorn & co. Being integral to highbrow Western thought doesn't necessarily make free-oriented jazz "good," but it does show there's a context in which difficult music like Shipp's appears as a viable progression for jazz within its own tradition.

Shipp hasn't subverted that tradition; he's developed it. He shares with other contemporary artists a focus not on decorative beauty, or the transposing of common emotions from life to art, but on the creation of a unique, often discomfiting intensity. At the same time, though, he's a bit of a throw- back. Rather than finding his style through postmodern collage or deconstruction, he simply developed his own sound. It takes Powell/Taylor-style a melodic exploration, deepens it, and stretches it into different contexts.

In his different group configurations, Shipp's innovations have come from the standpoints of structure, rhythm, and texture. of the recordings I've heard, the most realized, I think, are those by his quartet -- Critical Mass and The Flow of X. They feature Parker, violinist Matt Maneri, and drummer Whit Dickey. Shipp says of this group, "I want to de-emphasize the usual jazz way of using a rhythm section and soloists, by implementing the violin and bass as bookends at times, as a scaffolding that integrates into one sound."

He goes on to describe "Density and Eucharist," a track on Critical Mass: "The Eucharist is a communion service. Whenever I think of us as a communion, it has to do with us working together as a spiritual being, trying to be one."

He achieves this first by choosing to employ violin instead of horn. Where a sax will naturally take a lead role through force of sound, the violin in Maneri's hands moves alongside the rest of the group. There is rarely a hierarchical sense to the music on Critical Mass. Each player is on equal footing, soloing and supporting, contributing to both rhythm and coloring -- you sense them listening to each other.

"Critical Mass" and "Virgin Complex" show the group cobbling together a unified sense of upward reach from the quick runs and prods of each player. On "Critical Mass," Shipp's piano sits in the middle. He alternates between dense storms and spidery figures. Maneri works off his ideas, then be- gins to fly; there is a subtle, smooth shift, as Shipp begins to hang back and comp. Parker counters Maneri with a staccato rhythm. The pulse is fractured and remade by each player, yet the four march inexorably forward.

"Virgin Complex" begins with Shipp repeating a stately, blocked-out riff while Maneri and Parker squawk around him. Dickey provides textbook five-drumming: quiet cymbal washes, short fills, a sense of flexibility above all else. Shipp remains linear, unchanged, almost ambient at the center. The track builds in power without ever giving up the tension at its core.

This is group improv at its purest; a dark beauty shot through with frenetic, dissonant, individual expression.

"I'm a fan of players who aren't necessarily free, but who expanded a tradition. Like Andrew Hill: I take a lot from him. His stance, the way he took bop beyond what it had become in the late '50s. He broke past that, but never left it behind.

"Paul Bley, in the same way... he isn't "out" exactly, but there's an elliptical development in his playing that also expanded bop in an original way.

"My own playing has brought back some elements from my straightahead days. The style I have now was formed over a certain period.... I'd been playing out and trying to find something original, and suddenly it was there. But I do find myself adding more classic elements as I move on."

Shipp expands his own playing as a sideman with the David S. Ware Quartet. This group has been central to '90s jazz, a sort of unholy update of the classic John Coltrane Quartet. On their latest, Wisdom of Uncertainty (Aum Fidelity), the group's pained, searching Coltrane-like quality is gloriously overloaded. Ware screams to the limit, then goes farther. But the music never spills into anarchy -- partly because of Shipp. He paints a vast, varied textural landscape sliding right into the music's center, providing a launch point for both Ware's flights and the brisk, rhythmic chatter of Parker and new drummer Susie Ibarra. Shipp is more frankly musical here, a scene-setter rather than a disrupter. He puts Tyner or even Taylor comparisons to rest with the scope and variety of his playing.

On "Acclimation," Ware screeches, Shipp storms. He's very busy at the high end, fluttering around the sax, functioning almost as a second soloist. "Anditronic" features him solo with little of his customary density; he instead fashions a Monkish dance of ideas, a melodic hide-and-seek. "Utopic" finds him letting out a gently shifting and eddying whirlpool of sound. It serves as a spacious, horizontal counterpoint to Ware's nonstop blast-off.

"This is a way of life. It has to be. There's no other reason to play this music. It's impossible to do much more than scrape by, living month to month. It's such an underground language. I'm part of that Now York underground, where so much jazz happened it's almost another sound of the city. In my music, you hear the noise of the city, from the street, the buildings, everywhere."

"I'm not trying to play obscure shit or consciously trying to expand music. I'm just trying to put together pieces that people will get something out of. And much as I wish more people supported it, and more black people listened to it, I can't worry about anything but what I do."

"Playing with a guy like William Parker is what it's about. I got in this to play with people like that, and we've been at it since I started in New York. He's what a jazz player is. He exemplifies the improviser, the whole language. No one I've heard can reach this polyrhythmic zone he gets to. I've never heard anyone get this circular motion that we get together. With him, you know the music's a lifestyle: there's nothing else you can do."

Shipp and Parker demonstrate this with "Summertime." It isn't so much a rendition as a deepening of the song. Parker has his bow working, cutting, wheezing. Shipp states the melody with none of its familiar ease. The tune is hardened, un-steady. His left hand hammers -- a two-ton weight has been attached to the bottom of the song. Parker's bow begins to shriek.

The melody can't hold all this. They roll it forward. But everything is unsteady, and it scatters, drowned in the storm Shipp continues to call up. He's all over the piano, gliding, crashing, then moving more slowly, finding space. The theme returns, a distant cry inside the dozens of lines that fly around it. A wistful tune has been made monumental, visceral. Dark secrets it never seemed to hide are revealed.

Like all jazz, it finds something in a well-worn song that only the player could see -- in the tame lyrics of "Summertime," where Billie Holiday found the nuances of a heartbreaking love story; in its tune, where Coltrane found a near-spiritual purity. Shipp, like a thousand jazzmen before him, has found his music in the streets around him -- his city, where the livin' is not easy, but dense and lyrical, alienating and exhilarating. It's like listening to New York.

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