Matthew Shipp

      Photo: LORNA LENTINI

Tad Hendrickson

Is Avant-Jazz Pianist Matthew Shipp His Own Worst Enemy?

Matthew Shipp has a great new solo album coming out, but it's his mouth that once again causes a stir.

There's been a rumble in the jazz jungle these last few weeks as a new Jazztimes article on the experimental pianist makes the rounds. There has been a number of posts here at All About Jazz with a lot of back-and-forth about comments Shipp made, some new and some published previously.

According to Shipp, both Wayne Shorter's and Herbie Hancock's best days are behind them and they are taking up space at the top of the jazz heap. (His actual words were much more blunt and profane.) But controversy is something Shipp seems to court, even when talking about himself:

"I hear no one in the world with as developed and distinct voice as I have on my instrument for this period in the music," was what he said on the Brilliant Corners blog in July 2009.

Long known as a loose cannon, Shipp isn't afraid to let the verbal grenades fly when he talks. He loves to see his name in print and loves to hear himself quoted to himself, often laughing appreciatively when writers do it. When this is pointed out in a recent phone conversation, his response was typical Matthew Shipp: "Is that a problem?"

Most who know him chalk this to "Matthew being Matthew," but there is a darker side, too: He's had a few run-ins with journalist Stanley Crouch (another person who seems to enjoy a good tussle, verbal or physical): There was a shouting match between the two after a jazz awards ceremony that had to be broken up by Ravi Coltrane and journalist Howard Mandel after it reached the shoving stage. Then there was another verbal altercation some years later at a Jazz at Lincoln Center gala.

"The fact that I have an original style seems to bother him," Shipp says of Crouch. "I don't initiate stuff. He's always the one that starts it. If I am as not important as he says I am, why does he have such a problem with me?"

Long a fan of boxing, Shipp is most comfortable when sparring. He'll defend himself to the end. He'll attack people and their music. Even so, there isn't a real sense of hate in any of these feuds or insults. Anger? Yes. Hate? No. He's simply speaking his mind.

This sets up a question: Could Matthew Shipp be the pianist he is if he were any other way? "I believe that one's personality is part and parcel of one's music on a certain level," Shipp says over the phone.

The flip side of this confrontational approach is that Matthew Shipp is one of the most talented players of this era. Closing in on 50, he has released a string of dazzling solo and small-group recordings that range sonically from acoustic to electronic remix. His mix of complex improvisation and melody gets easy comparisons to avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor, but, really, the two don't have a whole lot in common.

He also participated in (for 16 years) and subsequently broke up the David S. Ware Quartet, which has been hailed many times as one of the great quartets of our time. Shipp has also mentored younger or less-known artists by releasing their albums through his Blue Series on Thirsty Ear records and provided a home for other established artists who need to put out records.

Live, his music isn't so much an experience as it is an adventure. His duo gigs with longtime friend and bassist William Parker are a personal favorite because the two complement each other so well with chemistry honed from decades of playing together in various groups. Nonetheless, you get the entire world of Matthew Shipp when he plays solo -- delicate nuance, snatches of standards, floor-shaking cataclysm, unexpected bits of dazzling classical technique.

In a roundtable discussion with Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer in Downbeat, Shipp was able to play nice, and he's quick to point that out: "If you read the vast majority of the interviews, there's usually nothing controversial at all.

Why does Shipp feel the need to attack Shorter and Hancock?
It's because they are the big fish.

This is nothing new in any art scene (or business): There's always a big name at the top -- living or dead -- that is getting more attention, rightfully or wrongfully (depending on who you talk to) than everybody else. And getting paid well as they do it, which irritates those not getting such royal treatment. "They are taking food off my table, and I'm angry about it," says Shipp on the phone about Shorter and Hancock. "That's what it breaks down to."

There's also context: The original quotes about Wayne and Herbie were said because he felt that the Ware Quartet never got the fiscal recognition it deserved. The band was highly praised with countless comparisons to Coltrane's classic quartet -- in chemistry, not sound -- but the band continued to be lumped into the avant-garde/downtown scene even when it was signed to Columbia Records by Branford Marsalis for two albums.

"I think David got the short end of the stick," Shipp points out, referring to Ware. "He's done so much for the music of this period. I want to point out that David's group really has done something in recent years, and Wayne just gets by on being Wayne. If the Ware quartet was as good as the rhetoric said, why wasn't it recognized in the same way as Wayne's band was?"

The problem, if you consider it one, is that Shipp knows how to stir the pot and certainly has seen results from doing it.

"I'm thankful that I'm making a living as a musician," he says.

"I would shut up and just do my thing if I was allowed to. But I've had to fight for everything I've gotten. My whole career is me fighting for every half inch. Nothing was given to me."

Lost in all this hullabaloo is the fact that Shipp has a new solo record coming out Jan. 26 called '4D.' "I'm basically just trying to make some nice sounds on the piano," he says of the new album, laughing. "The whole thing is meant to be a suite and the original pieces are meant to work with the standards. The basic idea of the album was to just play."

'4D' is more revealing than Shipp makes it sound. He practices piano a lot, like many musicians, but perhaps even more so. He's an A-1 improviser who keeps his band mates on their toes, but the solo format is Matthew Shipp -- it's how he relates to music on a day to day basis because it's the format that he most often hears himself. It's Shipp alone with his thoughts; it's a creative moment of truth. That makes it a crucial new addition to his catalog.

The kooky side of Matthew Shipp is that he's prone to saying each record is his last, only to have another come down the turnpike next year. In that grand tradition, Shipp says that '4D' is his last big record for Thirsty Ear, then he backtracks by saying there will be imports and there will other projects for Thirsty Ear of which he says he won't be the sole focus.

He's multifaceted, engaging, funny, contradictory and more. This makes it hard to pin him down beyond his penchant for starting fires.

Nonetheless, he is, as he says, a parcel of attitude and artistry and more.

"I have a lot out there and I need to wait for everyone to catch up," he says. "It's being presumptuous to say that I'm ahead of everybody, but I'll be egotistical and say that. People in the jazz world don't get me and that's OK. If they got me, I'd have that one little moment of attention and then I'd be finished." No worries there.

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