Matthew Shipp

The Pianist as Pugilist,
The Wall Street Journal

New Yorker Matthew Shipp Brings His Fight to the Blue Note. By LARRY BLUMENFELD

Watching Matthew Shipp play the piano is a bit like sitting ringside. Lefts and rights hit the keyboard's midsection in steady jabs, finding a rhythm that alternately lulls and stings. Or he might work his left hand, creating a rumbling dance of low-end notes. Then it comes: An unanticipated chiming cluster, landing like a roundhouse punch.

At times, his playing turns meditative. Mr. Shipp's style knows no single pattern. Yet the boxing parallel is clear, one that the pianist, who will perform two shows on Monday at the Blue Note on West 3rd Street, has advanced himself. The liner notes he wrote for his 1997 album, "Flow of X," celebrated the "complex patterns that underlie the boxing match or the jazz solo—the theater of kinetic gesture, a kaleidoscope of intelligent quicksilver action that generates a structure of intense beauty."

Mr. Shipp's offstage persona supports that metaphor in a different way: Verbally, he's as combative as any boxer, taunting supposed foes through interviews. Pianist Keith Jarrett is a frequent target, as is trumpeter Wynton Marsalis; Mr. Shipp has publicly questioned the status of icons, including pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

Such commentary is an act, akin to the classic pre-bout press conference. But, however inelegantly, it reflects the fighting spirit of a pianist who has stubbornly advanced his own artistic agenda against what he sees as the stacked odds of convention.

"The basic problem is you have to get up and completely re-create the whole thing every day," he says, sitting in the East Village apartment that's been home for 20 years, describing the business surrounding improvised jazz, not the music.

"There's no infrastructure, nothing to depend on. I happen to have a talent for promotion and an entrepreneurial aptitude. Or else I'd be dead."

The force and invention of Mr. Shipp's playing would likely have been enough to assure not just survival but a firm footing among New York's jazz community. Even on his earliest recordings, some 20 years ago—specifically those in a quartet led by the powerhouse saxophonist David S. Ware—Mr. Shipp stirred up fervent rhythmic propulsion and wove fresh, web-like harmonic patterns. His playing sounded new then, and does still.

On his recent solo album, "4D" (Thirsty Ear), Mr. Shipp's 16-track suite moves from ruminative originals to a fairly straight reading of the hymn "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" without once ever losing the thread of continuity. He has crafted a refined language out of knotty chords, emphatic crashes and bright accents, all of which draw on the energy of free jazz, the rudiments of modern jazz and the mood shifts of alternative pop. Yet he achieves a goal elusive to most free- and modern-jazzers, and even some alt-poppers: accessibility.

Mr. Shipp, 49, sidesteps the conventions of modern jazz piano, even of the avant-garde. You'll not hear sonic reference to Mr. Hancock's harmonic palette. And for all his percussiveness and dissonance, Mr. Shipp sounds little like Cecil Taylor, with whom he is often compared. He thinks of himself in a lineage he calls "Black mystery school pianists," originating with Thelonious Monk and extending to players as disparate as Andrew Hill, Sun Ra and Randy Weston. That sounds about right.

Mr. Shipp grew up in Wilmington, Del., and spent a year at the New England Conservatory of Music. He moved to New York in 1984 specifically to perform with bassist William Parker.

"Matthew was very confident in the way he spoke about his music," Mr. Parker said of their first meeting, on the street, during which Mr. Shipp handed him a tape. "What I heard in his music told me that he was very brave. He was adding these clusters and sounds that sounded un-jazz-like to me. They were dramatic, cinematic. He wasn't trying to sound the way a pianist is supposed to sound."

Together, in Mr. Ware's band for 16 years, and in other formats—duos, quartets and Mr. Shipp's magnificent String Trio, with violinist Mat Maneri—Messrs. Shipp and Parker formed a powerful bond, sonically distinct from any other in jazz.

As curator of Thirsty Ear's Blue Series, Mr. Shipp's resourcefulness has led to some of the past decade's most successful combinations of jazz and electronica, and has opened doors for his associates. For Mr. Maneri's brilliant Blue Series debut, 2000's "Blue Decco," Mr. Shipp introduced him to pianist Craig Taborn, an association that continues to this day.

"Musically, conceptually, no one has caught up with me yet," Mr. Shipp says, off on another near-rant of self-praise, sounding like a fired-up fighter. At the piano—mouth shut, hands on the keys, mind focused on his personal definition of tradition—Mr. Shipp best makes his case.

—Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz for the Journal.

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