Review by Thom Jurek, allmusic
For those who view Matthew Shipp and his ever-restless body of work as too far outside the spectrum of their desirability because of its deep reliance of late on electronics, or in earlier years, on dissonance and free improvisation, Piano Vortex may come as a shock.
Shipp, in collaboration with drummer Whit Dickey and bassist Joe Morris (he's not playing guitar this time out), sink their teeth into the notion of the piano trio as a prime vehicle for reconsidering the language of jazz. That's not to say that there aren't "free" pieces here, there are: "Sliding Through Space" is as outside as anything he's ever done, and the longish opening section of "The New Circumstance" and the frenetic yet brilliantly agile and intricately arrayed "Quivering with Speed" move that way as well, with the latter utilizing both Cecil Taylor and Bud Powell as rhythmic considerations as well as harmonic ones.
But there's something else being considered here, too. Shipp is reexamining his relationship to the piano trio, and "swing" in particular, as ways of getting at his own head-scratching ideas of harmonic and dialogic interplay. The tentative, even tender and mysterious beginning of the title cut that opens the album is a prime example. Beginning with a whisper of notes before Morris enters the dialogue, Shipp, finds his way in the middle and upper registers of the instrument, examining fragments of a melody that he begins to extrapolate upon before fully realizing it. He allows Morris and then Dickey to provide a ground of steady but non-insistent communication as he winds his way all around this minor-key idea before eventually turning his head to chromatics and color, taking the rhythm as a cue to begin to build on.
The fragmental melodic idea gets spread out pretty wide but it never falls apart. He plays inside his own set of restrictions to engage the band percussively, with accents that fire first on ones and then on twos and threes, and his beautiful trills, 16th note runs, block chords, and scalar flourishes are beautiful little asides as the piece becomes more abstract in its middle stages before flying off into wild and sometimes purposely repetitive and lyrically elegant note patterns in varying dynamics.
The rhythm section flies to accommodate him, and on a dime they can shift that dynamic and stretch Shipp's melodic interplay even further. On other cuts, such as "Key Swing," Shipp directly engages the blues via equal parts Bobby Timmons, Thelonious Monk, and Ramsey Lewis! "Nooks and Crannies" uses intricate scalar notions à la Lennie Tristano without moving directly into bebop. The patterns are knotty, elongated lines inside other lines and yes, both these tunes swing. The dialogue between Dickey and Morris is particularly gratifying here, because they move forward along a line that while not entirely straight, is circular and finds its way back as a landmark for Shipp, particularly on the latter number.
"To Vitalize" begins as a straight hard bop tune before becoming an elliptical mode of inquiry for Shipp and company. He follows Monk's ideas of ending lines in the middle and tagging on grainy harmonic bits that work in conjunction with the rhythm section while adding layers of melodic and textural material. Here, too, the move is one toward swing, and which does work because of the very pronounced rhythm section pacing of the pianist. He is free to move off-square, turn his chords inside out, and never stray far from the blues feel in the tune, even when those chords, made up of complex minor-key extrapolations, are chunky. His middle register solo in the middle of the tune is an elegant and subtle contrast.
There is also a beautiful little solo piece just before the end, titled "Slips Through the Fingers," that is an investigation of the lower (and lower) middle registers of the keyboard. Here a small lyric fragment serves as a limited but very colorful and even graceful investigation of the melodies that lie inside chords, even as they are taken apart and reassembled. It doesn't feel at all self-indulgent, and merely sets the listener up for the aforementioned closer that is so dazzling and delightful. Piano Vortex is the most intimate recording Shipp has made in a long while. He looks back through the music's history and speaks with it, as it informs his own extension of it. This is an intimate and unvarnished look at Shipp as a jazz pianist as we've ever heard on record.
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