Matthew Shipp


STEVE DOLLAR, The Wall Street Journal

THOUGH HE'S RECORDED at a pace that makes most pop stars look like slackers -- 18 solo albums since 1991, and at least as many as a sideman -- Matthew Shipp is not a name that's easily found in most CD bins. As a jazz pianist, hes already got one strike against him. As a jazz pianist associated with the avant-garde, a label that has worn loose and thin through 40 years of usage, he's doubly cursed. He's compelled to work the narrow margin within an already limited market. Here, the bulk of mainstream success is reaped by dead men, the jazz legends whose catalogs sustain the industry, and female vocalists like Diana Krall and Cassandra Wilson, who bridge the divide between acoustic jazz and adult-oriented pop.

Not that Shipp, at 39 a longtime fixture of New York's ever-mutable downtown music scene, has ever expected anything different. "To me the jazz industry is outdated in every way," he insists, beginning a conversation with a favorite refrain. "It's always been people from outside the jazz industry who have recognized my talent. You can't rely on people who just buy jazz albums. If you do, your rent's not going to get paid."

Instead, Shipp's concepts have flourished microcosmically, on small European and American independent record labels, the kind known mostly to hip college radio listeners. Such fans tend to embrace what might be called "other music," and they comprise a quirky, blurry audience, one likely to be as conversant in the latest offerings by, say, YoLa Tengo, DJ Spooky or Femi Kuti.

They're the most open to what Shipp does: extract from jazz and classical traditions a deeply personal improvised language that resists easy translation. It's a volatile tongue that can speak in the hushed tones of devotional austerity and shout with the cathartic promise of a wrecking ball, deliberately mocking the notion of conventional swing while proposing a highly charged abstraction of its fundamental impulse. Which is to say, Shipp's music can be heady going. But, as befits a musician whose core enthusiasms include both pro wrestling and the school of American transcendental poets, there's more than one aspect at work. He contains multitudes.

This makes Shipp's latest career move less surprising than it might seem. He's become a record company executive. And, in his first official act, he released the most user-friendly album of his career. As its title implies, "Pastoral Composure" reflects a gentler approach, one that has been steadily asserting itself on the musician's more recent albums. The opening track, "Gesture," begins with Gerald Cleaver's martial drumming as the pianist lays down a stately processional, the backdrop for an extended serenade from trumpeter Roy Campbell that is strongly evocative of the mood painting Miles Davis and Gil Evans achieved on "Sketches of Spain." The quartet, with Shipp's longtime musical,partner William Parker on bass, drops deep in the pocket for "Visions," a nearly straight-up swing number that makes explicit the pianist's bop lineage and illustrates exactly how pretty his intricate, mercurial, single-note runs can sound in steady time. Duke Ellington, whose albums share pride of place in Shipp's East Village studio with those of alternative rock heroes Nirvana and Sleater-Kinney, is paid homage on "Prelude To a Kiss." This time, though, it's an introspective analysis, sensitive to melody, with a touch of distinctly Shippian counterpoint thrown in rather than the deconstructive approach the musician usually brings to standards.

The album, Shipp explains, is "a blueprint" for a new line of recordings he's been signed to produce. The Blue Series is part of a deal with Thirsty Ear Records, an independent label whose recent titles include the avant-rock act Pere Ubu and British electronic duo Spring Heel Jack. Unlike so many homegrown indie jazz labels that have championed the music of Shipp and his peers, Thirsty Ear has strong distribution through the Alternative Distribution Alliance, itself connected to the Time-Warner media empire.

The series, which grew out of Shipp's five-year association with the label, will continue with sessions led by musicians who are part of the pianist's immediate circle or only slightly beyond it: bassist Parker and violinist Mat Maneri, who are members of Shipp's string trio and are themselves prolific bandleaders; and pianist Craig Taborn, known for his work with saxophonist James Carter and, with Shipp, in reed visionary Roscoe Mitchell's double quartet, the Note Factory.

"The albums are no concessions," Shipp says, expressing his desire to emulate the spirit of early '70s ECM titles, such as Dave Holland's "Conference of the Birds," which peeked forward with a lyrical, open sensibility that stressed beauty over confrontation. "Maybe in some instances we're emphasizing the more traditional elements of our sound" and, in the process, making the music less "otherly." It's an idea that's taken hold of several of Shipp's colleagues. Tenor saxophonist David S. Ware, who secured a major-label deal with Columbia in 1997, seeks a mellower tone for much of "Surrendered" (due May 16), which also showcases Shipp in a seductively swinging, lighter-fingered mode.

Boston guitarist Joe Morris, one of the most original and unsung musicians of his generation, bases his improvisations on thoroughly hummable melodies on such recent indie-label releases as "A Cloud of Black Birds" (Aum Fidelity), "Underthru" (Omnitone) and "At the Old Office" (Knitting Factory). Coming from another direction, the downtown groove combo Medeski, Martin and Wood -- beloved of dancing hippie kids nationwide -- unplugs its Hammond B-3 for an acoustic jazz set on the just-released "Tonic." Recorded live at the Lower East Side Manhattan club of its title, the Blue Note release finds the band exploring freer time, with a more Cubist approach to rhythm. The opening track, "Invocation," might even fool someone in a blindfold test into guessing the pianist was Shipp, one of Medeski's old classmates at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Is all this part of some millennial paradigm shift? Well, yes and no. As Parker, whose rapturously bluesified "Painter's Spring" is the next release in the Blue Series, observes: "It's not like you're playing anything different. You can just hear it in a different light."

Shipp, ever conscious of creating a moment he can seize, phrases it a different way. "Here I am, a suppossed intellectual, a supposed avant-gardist, and I've made an easy-listening album! It's going to trip everybody out. If the stars align, it could possibly break the bank and go all the way. And no one will know how we did it"

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