Well yeah, go ahead and call Matthew Shipp a jazz pianist, because that, in a way, is precisely what he is. But, good god, he strides far outside whatever done-to-death images that expression is going to conjur, and clearly, clearly itís time to do a little probing on that score.
The NYC-based musician, whoís also worked in several decidedly non-trad jazz collaborative contexts (David S. Ware, El-P, DJ Spooky, the Maneri Ensemble, Spring Heel Jack, Roscoe Mitchell's Note Factory, the William Parker Quartet, among numerous varied others), now comes with the latest in a lengthy series of tightrope walks high above craggy chasms:
Shippís new 4D album on the essential Thirsty Ear label finds him focusing fiercely in a difficult but immensely rewarding (give it some time, please) slew of keyboard challenges that draw from familiar and arcane archives in the trad jazz idiom and splice them Ďtween overtly pointyheaded harmonic/structural densities of the Euro neo-classical and new-music territories. Matthew Shippís forte and relevant achievement is the ferociously intelligent way he stamps very personal points and lines on this meltdown of traditions.
BLUEFAT: Your new album is pure music, and a very exacting exploration of ideas and problem-solving. What does it say about your relationship to jazz?
I donít have problems with the term jazz. To me, itís a label which is necessary in the practical world, even though in the metaphysical world of making the music there are no labels, thereís just making music. But being a pragmatist, I can understand that youíve got to have a part of the record store to put the album in. As for my relationship to jazz, I guess Iím a jazz musician ĖĖ Iím an African American improvisational musician, and thatís been defined as ďjazzĒ if you do that, soÖ
Conceptually, though, do you see yourself consciously in the jazz tradition?
I do, I think of myself as in the same mindset that Bud Powell or Thelonious Monk occupied, albeit in a different time and a whole different reality. But I definitely see myself coming out of their posture, as far as the figures that they created for themselves, and playing the piano into the world, the environment, that theyíre around. I understand their posture and feel very close to it. An obvious though probably superficial reference point might be the jazz-improv-unto-new-music trips of Cecil Taylor. Did he have much of an impact on your thinking about the pianoís role in the new jazz?
Well, the great thing from him in my development was that he just let you know that there was another way to play. Iím a child of the í70s, I was born in 1960, but when I was growing up, there were piano players like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, or Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor who just let you know that there was another way if you wanted to take that particular way of doing things.
But as far as the actual content of what Cecil was playing, I always stayed very clear away from it, because it works for him but it really wouldnít work for anybody else.
How do you work? Do you think in shapes, possibly, or have specific games in mind that you want to pursue in a piece? Or might it go the opposite way, where what we call emotion might drive what youíre trying to get across?
It works both ways. Sometimes I sit down with an emotional or general philosophical idea in mind, and the piece works itself out in a way thatís very surprising to me. Other times I have an exact idea of a kind of specific gestural thing I want to explore, and I work that way.
And sometimes itís a mesh of both.
What does the albumís title 4D refer to?
The fourth dimension, in the fringe, you know, searching for a space-time continuum on the piano that is a dimension above this world, or a dimension above the usual piano world.
From the opening notes, the title track is an amazing piece: amazing chords, amazing independence in your hands, and an amazingly varied emotional terrain. With every one of these tracks, thereís so much to absorb, someone could be listening to this thing the rest of his life and still be making discoveries. For me, this works too as highly visual music. Are you thinking visually, or is that a composer clichť?
Oh no, I think thereís a cinematic aspect to how I program things. Itís not so much based on cinema, but more on metaphysical images Ė and I donít mean strict religious images, but things in my subconscious mind. I definitely program it based on whatís going on underneath the surface in my own head, and those are images of sorts.
Letís take the track ďThe Crack in the Pianoís EggĒ for example. The title itself says youíre going to do something new, and youíre going to do it with your own internal logic.
In that piece I had the image of a bebop pianist, but in 2009, so it wouldnít be bebop in language Ė well, thatís an area where maybe thereís a fractured bebop sensibility.
The title refers to one of my favorite books, A Crack in the Cosmic Egg, and that book has to do with constructs of mind and reality and language. My piece has to do with the idea of a linear bebop language fracturing and actually generating another language as kind of a meta-language to bebop-ology. And itís somewhere in the stratosphere between Monk and Bud Powell, but in a very 2009 type of way.
ďThe Crack in the Pianoís EggĒ is not a humorous piece as such, but thereís a sense of fun in hearing you really having your way with the piano. How much is a piece like that feeling very physical to you?
Oh, thereís one part where Iím doing this descending thing, itís like a jackhammer.
Right, I heard it like somebody stomping in some big boots.
Yeah, thereís definitely that aspect to it in some parts, when the big chords come in.
Meanwhile thereís another track, ďEquilibrium,Ē where youíre taking what sounds like an architectural approach to the sound in the music.
I think in terms of sacred physical spaces. My major joy in life is going to churches and cathedrals. Iím not a standard type of Christian or anything, but I really enjoy the resonance and the kind of quietude that can exist in sacred places of all cultures.
Any type of sacred architecture, or crop circles or pyramids or anything like that, which has a geometrical basis to it, is based on geometry, number and resonance, informs my music actually more than anything. I consider sacred architecture a space to meditate or to dwell, to rest your mind, and thatís how I conceptualize my music.
But then your pieces are also like pools to immerse in, thereís so much to experience. That can be a meditative thing, but itís also inspiring for the sheer number of ideas youíve got crammed into every work. Youíve obviously got a lot of jazz history in your playing, but you do seem to be coming from a lot of different musical places.
Well, thereís a big element of Balinese music. The great thing about gamelan, some of it, is when itís really happening, itís like a huge sheet of glass, and I love that transparent bigness of the sound.
I always go for that in my harmonic language, huge chords that are somehow also transparent. I also really like classical Indian music, because it has the same resonance that I like in Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix, and that is, a circular world thatís ecclesiastical-sounding.
The thing is, you just gotta be open to everything, and thatís what I hear in Monk; it doesnít matter what it was ≠≠ĖĖ a country song or birds chirping ĖĖ he just took it in and somehow broke it down to something that worked with his brain stem.
When you asked what are the things that launched me, itís everything. In the classical realm, itís pretty obvious, itís Debussy, and Iím very heavy into the whole Glenn Gould Plays Bach trip, very heavy into some things like Schoenberg or Webern and Boulez, and some aspects of Cage and Feldman, and a lot of Chopin, a lot of Scriabin.
But all in all, I mean, itís everything ĖĖ the wind and the rain and all of that, because itís all vibrations, and itís all rhythm.
When you mentioned Cage and Feldman, would we be hearing that in your very deliberate use of space?
Feldman I really am into. Cage, [laughs] I like his prepared piano pieces a lot, but, yeah, Feldman is profound in his use of space, silence, very profound.
Iím not really into Cageís ideas about indeterminacy and all that. I mean, I believe in random factors in the universe, but I ultimately believe that chaos and randomness is important because thatís what revitalizes everything, and that thereís a central organizing principle at the bottom of the cosmos or of anybodyís brain that organizes things within a certain form, albeit if itís your form or this personís form.
Whereas I think with Cage, as open as he is, he sometimes presents some of his ideas as doctrinaire. But, you know, maybe he had to be the one to explore that.
One of the most inspiring things about your playing is that you sound like an artist who is primarily doing his art for himself. And it doesnít sound selfish in that way, rather itís a pleasure to experience the intensity of your focus.
Thatís always going to be the best thing for the listener, who can ideally extrapolate wisdom from your scheme of logic, and your own idiosyncratic harmonic sense, certainly. Thatís whatís killing me, by the way ĖĖ these are the best damn chords Iíve ever heard.
Iím obsessed with harmony, utterly obsessed. In different ways, too. I mean, my two favorite pianists are A) Duke Ellington and B) Bill Evans.
Theyíre coming from different standpoints altogether, but you know they both obsessed over what chords they were going to grab, and just with certain voices they can Ė thereís so much information, always. Iíve always been obsessed with that. In classical music I guess Scriabin and Debussy offer some of the juiciest vocabulary. And Schoenberg, and actually Gershwin in the classical pieces, thereís a lot.
Speaking of fantastic chord voicings, you do a track called ďPrimal Harmonic.Ē What were you aiming for in that one?
When I look back on it, even though I wasnít thinking this in the studio, that seemed to me to be kind of my take on the intersection of worlds between. And I donít usually approach music this way, but I thought about an intersection between McCoy Tyner and Alice Coltrane, two pianists who played with the same sax player, who had divergent, different styles, but were involved with the same sax player, one of them just a longtime pianist, the other his wife, a pianist.
Iím an Alice Coltrane fanatic, and feel that sheís never gotten her due. And that track I did that toward the end of the session, and I was kind of tired, and I didnít even care about playing, I mean, I knew we had the album so I was just trying stuff. So I just sat down and said, Oh, itíd be cool to do a piece thatís me but where Alice and McCoy are slightly felt, you know.
How much are these pieces worked out before you record in the studio?
Well, most of them arenít, but what I did in preparing for the album was I spent a lot of time practicing; I went out here to my fatherís home and really concentrated on I mean massive practicing to get focused. I kind of worked over some ideas and really, really focused in on it, and Iíd been thinking about it for a while. So on one level, a lot of it is spontaneous, but I actually did work through a lot of ideas over a period of time.
You mentioned your love of gamelan, and I thought of that musicís similarity to the effect one experienced hearing Ornette Colemanís Prime Time band play, that there is a way to listen to tightly interlaced music close up and farther back.
One can do that with your music, stick the face right in there and examine the parts, and flabbergast at what all youíre doing technically; then you can pull back from it and see and feel it more like an ornately strewn wall or fabric, where it becomes more visual, maybe. Thatís possible with a lot of music, I suppose, but are you thinking along those lines, too, of the varied depths with which to perceive your sound?
No, no, no, Iím not really thinking about how people are going to perceive it; I can only generate what I am.
You know, the great thing about music is that it offers different ways to listen. But Iím not thinking about how anybody else is going to get into it and experience what Iím doing. Just trying to do my part at that time.
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