Matthew Shipp

Matthew Shipp: Monday Interview
Posted by John Kenyon
Things I'd Rather Be Doing

The knock against free jazz (or avant garde or creative music or any other nomenclature) is usually that the listener doesn’t “get” it. The lack of a definable rhythm or melody challenges the listener to such a degree that, rather than put in the time to find a way in, he instead takes a powder, opting for something more easily digested.

That’s fine; there are times where three chords and a heavy backbeat are all I need. But other times, I want to work at my music, knowing the rewards will be that much greater. That’s why I have spent so much time with the music of Matthew Shipp.

I first heard Shipp on 1999’s DNA, a duo album the pianist made with bassist William Parker. I recognized both from David S. Ware’s Wisdom of Uncertainty, the first non-traditional jazz album I purchased. A fawning review of that album made me take the leap at a time in my life where I craved something more than I was getting through the usual channels. I’ll admit that I still don’t fully understand or appreciate that album 14 years on, and I certainly haven’t figured out the dozen-plus Shipp albums I have acquired since that first.

But I have discovered enough; more than enough. A new Shipp release is an automatic purchase for me (or thanks to the largesse of the Thirsty Ear publicity department, a highly anticipated promo arrival), because I know it will enlighten, engage, challenge and delight. Whether he is playing solo, performing in various acoustic configurations or collaborating with electronic artists on some melding of hip hop and jazz, I know I’ll take something away each time I listen.

His new album, The Art of the Improviser, is a landmark of sorts. Shipp turned 50 in December, and his long-time label, Thirsty Ear, clearly wants to use that occasion to reintroduce the artist to the masses. It’s a double-disc set, with one CD capturing a solo performance, the other his trio with new bassist Michael Bisio and longtime drummer Whit Dickey. He tackles newer songs like “4D” and older tracks like “Circular Temple #1,” as well as oft-covered standards like “Take the A Train.”

It doesn’t fully capture Shipp’s oeuvre, but nothing short of a boxed set could. What it does offer is a snapshot of the artist today, a constantly striving artist who is increasingly able to bridge the distance between lyrical classicism and questing exploration.

And no, I don’t write that as someone who “gets” everything Shipp does. Far from it. But I get enough to keep me digging.

TIRBD: The press materials for your new album state that “for the better part of fifty years, Matthew Shipp has been on a tireless journey to innovate a musical language…” At first that brought a chuckle, thinking of you in diapers nearly 50 years ago trying to “innovate a musical language.” But then I stopped and wondered: At what age did you actually start playing music, and at what age do you feel you began creating a musical language of your own as opposed to recreating that of others?

MS: I started at 5 got serious at 12 – with classical, started jazz at about 14. As far as really trying to find myself on an instrument, that started around 18, but I love the image you have of being in diapers and trying to innovate a musical language. At 18 my style was part McCoy (Tyner)-part Bill Evans, but I was cognizant that I was looking for myself even though I used that style to do regular gigs.

This release offers two sides of your performing persona: solo and as part of a group. Do you prefer one over the other? What does each afford that the other does not?

No – I do whatever is before me. My focus will be on the trio though, for that is a direct link to the jazz tradition – even though I have said some things that could be construed as anti jazz trad, I am looking for a way to fit in that tradition believe it or not. I love solo also because as a pianist there is such a great tradition of solo keyboard work including Bach, Chopin, Debussy, Tatum, Monk’s beautiful solos, Cecil, etc., etc.

What did you take away from your work curating the Blue Series for Thirsty Ear? From the outside, it seems to have afforded you the opportunity to expand your sonic palette considerably.

It takes me outside myself, which as an artist it is so easy to be completely self absorbed – but bringing in other people and having a hand in some CDs is very gratifying because it reminds you that there is a whole big world of music out here and it’s not just about you. And it’s easy to think it’s just about you because it’s so hard to survive as a jazz musician that that mindset kicks in just as a defense mechanism. And also, yes, it’s giving me a chance to explore how others deal with organizing sound in a way that I would not if I was not as involved.

Having explored those sounds, you have returned to more organic, acoustic settings on recent albums. Did anything in particular motivate that shift, and do you foresee ever venturing again into more electronic-based music? I am open to doing collaborative electronic projects if an artist comes up that I would want to work with – and of course they would want to work with me – but at the end of the day, I am a jazz pianist and I am actually very comfortable with that idea.

I had the pleasure of seeing your “Boxing and Jazz” performance in Minneapolis several years ago. Do you still follow the sport? Do you take similar inspiration from any other extra-musical interests that you can see manifest themselves in your work? Oh yes, I am a boxing fanatic. I follow it very close and I find it a very interesting subculture in the way that jazz is an interesting subculture – or at least used to be. I get most of my inspiration from metaphysics though, for what I explore in music is mind – vibration-pools of language fields of intelligence and process – and all that could be summed up in the stupid word of god.

You have played with a wide array of people. Is there anyone left, either in the world of what is considered jazz or beyond it, with which you would like to collaborate?

I would love to do a collaboration with  Ikue Mori. I think she is a laptop genius.

Musicians talk about recreating the music they hear in their head, and I wonder what you hear when you are thinking about music. Have you been able to capture that in your recordings and performance, or is there an ideal that you still seek?

Well, Cecil once said if you hear it, why play it – what you hear is memory – but I do have a field of language that I “hear” that I push against.

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