Matthew Shipp

Matthew Shipp - Piano Vortex
by Mark Saleski, BlogCritics Magazine

I got into this argument once with somebody about how much music was left in the world. That's right, the idea was that there were only so many notes, scales, and chord progressions left out there. At some point in the not too distant future, the source material would be exhausted and no more music would be created.

Frankly, this struck me as complete lunacy. It was like floating the argument that everything had been done in art. Right, and since the earth is so old, perhaps we should stop looking at sunsets. Those things are so old-fashioned and redundant!

Well, I have heard similar — but not so crazy — lines of thought on the jazz trio. The piano trio has been around seemingly forever. It has nothing left to say. The piano runs the show, sketches out the chord progression, plays the head, takes a solo, and then lays back and comps behind the bass solo to follow. Maybe another piano solo is presented, and they might give the drummer some too, before the inevitable restatement of the theme.

The piano trio has become, supposedly, a jazz version of a Hallmark greeting card. C'mon, you know how things will turn out. Don't believe it. There is an unlimited wealth of musical contours to be traced, even by a traditional jazz trio. The cliché of "subtlety is lost on some people" rings true here.

Of course, the words 'traditional' and 'Matthew Shipp' don't often appear together. On Piano Vortex though, Shipp dials back on the technology, instead focusing on the possibilities of piano/bass/drums interplay. To my ears, there are way too many highlights to enumerate, but let's get at what makes this trio different.

"The New Circumstance" begins with Joe Morris (yes, that Joe Morris, this time on bass) playing a short bowed solo backed by Whit Dickey's swift brushes before Shipp's first piano chords splash over them. There's a lot of tension and release on this tune as the intensity of the improvisations build and explode while ideas are passed back and forth between Shipp and his cohorts. Just when you're absolutely certain that chaos is about to take over, everybody lays back to start the process all over again. Morris and Dickey both take extended solos near the end of the piece before Shipp comes back in with a final series of chords that seem to resolve everything.

A much different approach is taken on "Sliding Through Space," where the entire story, written in real time, is told with short instrumental vignettes. First piano, then bass and drums...then piano...bass and drums. With Dickey sticking mainly to brushes and ride cymbals, the piece has the feel of a call & response between Shipp and Morris. That is, until all three players set off on a long excursion that slowly builds until Shipp channels Cecil Taylor with some serious abuse of the keyboard. Scary stuff, until Shipp drops back to let Morris (bowed bass this time) and Dickey let the air clear. The dust indeed settles and Shipp returns alone to finish with some odd, almost lullaby-ish phrases.

"Quivering With Speed": the title says it all. This is where the this trio reminds me of Chick Corea's A.R.C. (with Barry Altschul and the great Dave Holland). Everyone is playing with full-on intensity, speed (of course!), and finesse. Somehow, they had the presence of mind to throw in a "Giant Steps" quote before heading back into the fury. Really inspiring stuff here.

Piano Vortex ends with "To Vitalize," which almost tricks you into thinking that Shipp wanted to close things out with something traditional. In fact, it does start out with straight ahead swing, but is gradually taken "out" by Shipp's increasingly fractured runs around the rhythm section. Morris is particularly effective here with some great and extremely woody walking lines, which are sometimes held in relief by Shipp's chromatic runs headed in the opposite direction. Morris also takes a great solo that reminds me of the way he tangles his electric guitar lines. (It also makes me wish for a Shipp/Morris piano/guitar record.)

So there you have it. Further proof that there's still life left in the piano trio. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise, as there are no Hallmark moments on Piano Vortex.

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