by Thom Jurek
Though pianist Matthew Shipp has been playing with drummer Whit Dickey and Joe Morris (as guitarist and bassist, and here it's as the latter) for years in different contexts, this piano trio has only come together as a unit over the last couple of years.
The three first explored their possibilities on record in 2007 with the fine Piano Vortex album. This is a very different recording in many respects. The musicians have performed together often enough to really get to know one another in the nuanced balance of the trio format, and Shipp has obviously greatly considered its strengths in his writing and approach.
There are a whopping 14 tunes on Harmonic Disorder. Shipp has taken on the notion of restraint as a method of expression here, and as a result, some more classic approaches to the piano trio format assert themselves — but only so far.
The obvious touchstones in his compositional approach are referenced in the work of two very different players: Thelonious Monk (whose influence can immediately be heard on the opening track, "GNG," though it is pervasive), and to a lesser extent Andrew Hill. "GNG" uses Monk's simple melodic idea for a single repetitive — yet somewhat angular — line as a method of takeoff.
Morris has really grown into his role as a bassist and his sense of intuition is as great as his time. Shipp pushes his band to actually swing here, and the parts come together in a moving, finger-popping groove. This is followed by the pianist's wild reading of "There Will Be Another You," which is dense and somewhat free, but its melodic frame is ever present.
The other standard here, "Someday My Prince Will Come," is almost a mirror image: it begins almost ghostly with minor mode chords asserting themselves and Morris playing in high pizzicato to introduce the theme. Shipp hits a couple of larger dense chords and lets the melody begin to assert itself in rounds. It arrives and begins to sing and float, hovering above the more involved interplay of the trio, and then gives way to some freer playing before returning and shimmering through the rhythm section until it disappears altogether.
The knotty melodic ideas expressed in "Mr. JM" recall '70s and '80s trio sides, especially in Shipp's way of playing in the spaces between his melody and around the outside of the rhythm section. "Orb" has a lyric line that comes right out of the blues, though it stretches to the breaking point without falling headlong into the improvisational abyss.
It's not dense at all, but spacious and warm despite its scuttled approach to time. You can actually hum the melody to this tune. "Compost" is one of the most haunting and beautiful tunes Shipp has ever composed, and this is where he and his band come closest to what one thinks of when uttering the words "piano trio." But this fine group doesn't fit that idea neatly at all.
In fact, Shipp, Dickey, and Morris have moved the entire concept into a different place, where weight, balance, time, harmonic interplay, and means of dialogue carry very different meanings than they do in other like situations. The title Harmonic Disorder may read like this is one of Shipp's more intense outings, but the truth is, while it has wonderfully fiery moments, this is an intimate recording filled with new ideas, humor, depth, and warmth.
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