Reviewed: Matthew Shipp’s Harmonic Disorder
By Michael J. West
The title of Matthew Shipp’s new album, Harmonic Disorder, is also a frequent descriptor of the pianist’s crashing style - and it’s a trap.
The intensity and complexity of the music give the album only a veneer of chaos, the best example of which is the delirious “Mr. JM.” The “JM” the song’s name refers to is bassist Joe Morris, and that’s the crack in the façcade: Closer inspection reveals that although the piano is the dominant sound, Shipp is following Morris. His wild curlicues of notes form daring harmonies with the supple bass, and his apparently free rhythms constantly accent Morris’ waltz time.
After recognizing that there is indeed an orderly structure at work, navigating Harmonic Disorder is easy. Like a novel by Joyce, the dense, challenging sections are offset by passages of such grace and beauty that they pull the ear through the tough spots. “Mr. JM” is bookended by a two-part piece called “Mel Chi”; Part 2 (which appears first) is a simple yet spellbinding repetition of two arpeggios, while Part 1 finds Shipp playing a stomp while drummer Whit Dickey—a wizard of equal powers to the pianist— ticks out a busy, rolling hip-hop beat.
“Light” reveals obstacles and openings simultaneously, with weird patterns of high trills and low thunderclaps from Shipp and sublimely loose swing from the rhythm players. There’s even some humor: On “There Will Never Be Another You” (one of two standards on the disc), the band does an ironic and dissonant zip through what’s traditionally a romantic ballad. It’s these kinds of subversions that have long associated Shipp with pianistic revolutionaries Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor—an accurate, if somewhat narrow, comparison. Truthfully, Shipp’s playing encompasses the history of jazz piano, a point which Harmonic Disorder perhaps makes clearer than any of his releases to date.
Allusions to Monk as both player and composer are manifest (“GNG, “Roe”); ditto for Taylor (“ZO Number 2”). However, the slow “Compost” is constructed on Duke Ellington’s stride technique and ringing chords, and the title track is a slice of quiet and tenderness that could only be traced to Bill Evans. Thus, it’s something of a flip through the jazz yearbook for connoisseurs, and for initiates it’s a glimpse of the instrument’s range within the genre. For both parties, though, Harmonic Disorder serves notice of the lies behind both the title and the name above it: Shipp is a musician of scholarship and precision, harmonic and otherwise.
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