Matthew Shipp

The New Facts,
by AGF, This Is Our Music

MATTHEW SHIPP’S PLACE at the forefront of free music isn’t really up for debate; the pianist has been a leading light in improvised circles for twenty years or more.

In addition to fronting several vital bands himself, he’s been featured in a number of adventurous ensembles, and has played on a number of Important Recordings (off the top of my head: Third Ear Recitation, Time is of the Essence…, Going to Church, Threads).

But even with all of that in mind, something about Shipp’s latest release has the feel of a legacy disc. It seems to me, for reasons I’m endeavouring to quantify, that years hence, when a listener wants to know what the fuss was about, they’ll be directed to Art of the Improviser. It will be, if you’ll forgive the comparison, his own A Love Supreme.

IT ISN’T FAIR to compare Shipp to Coltrane, of course. It isn’t fair to compare anyone to Coltrane, really, but the man is of such import that it’s hard not to let his name enter the discussion. So let’s have at it. Shipp is, like Coltrane was, at the leading edge of free improvisation.

There are few names you’d mention before his when having a serious conversation about the state of free improv piano in 2011, just as Coltrane stood at the fore of jazz saxophone in 1964. Both A Love Supreme and Art of the Improviser are unambiguous statements of their creators’ approaches to music*. For John Coltrane music was, by 1964, an unambiguous expression of his spirituality, while for Shipp music is a continuum, a dialogue with the past, or, to jump disciplines and paraphrase Margaret Atwood, negotiations with the dead. That’s what Art of the Improviser is, in a handy package: Shipp’s negotiations. Transcripts of his conversations with everyone from Jelly Roll to Bud Powell, Monk to Cecil.

* To limit discussion of either man’s career
to one album, of course, does them a disservice.
I don’t mean to suggest that Shipp should
only be remembered for this release,
any more than I would suggest that Coltrane
should only be remembered for A Love Supreme.
But both albums are emblematic, and convenient
starting points into their respective authors’ body
of work. And, I suspect, they both represent
the furthest point many casual listeners
will bother to explore.

THE OPENING MOMENTS of the two disc set are bracing. The theme of “The New Fact” is as dramatic and declamatory as you’re likely to find in jazz, or free music, or whatever it is you choose to call it. It sounds like something you’d find on a rock or hip hop album. That’s no accident; Shipp has spent a great deal of energy working with artists like Spring Heel Jack, DJ Spooky, Antipop Consortium, and El-P (as well as “curating” the Blue Series for Thirsty Ear) trying not to “incorporate elements of…” but to identify the point where free music and these other forms meet. From there, the quick dissolve into what makes him Shipp: the musical history lesson, Fatha Hines to Cecil Taylor to Matthew Shipp.

Sure, he’s digested all of jazz history, and he can quote it, reinterpret it, make sense of it all. That’s what he’s been doing for several decades now. But what he’s up to circa 2010-11 is including himself in that progression. He’s considering his place, the dot on the timeline that bears his name. Because it’s there. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that Matthew Shipp has become (in fact, has long been) a jazz piano master.

The trio portion of the double album features Michael Bisio on bass, and longtime associate Whit Dickey on drums. How’s your endurance for an ensemble with no horn? If any group can make you sit still for the first disc’s running time, it’s this one. Then you’re on to disc two, the solo portion.

SOLO PERFORMANCES ARE a test, for player and listener alike. They are an individual on a naked plain with no refuge, no hiding place, no cover. That’s as true here as it is on The Koln Concert, or on Vijay Iyer’s recent solo recording. A solo performance is the artist declaring, Here I am, no tricks, take me or leave me. For a listener, it is the challenge of active listening, of leaving behind their desire for melody and interplay. Sitting still, listening.

Shipp’s solo work is encyclopaedic. Take a hundred and fifty years’ worth of music – on paper, on wax cylinder, on vinyl, CD, as sound file – and blend until coherent. And beautiful.

HE HAS A massive body of work that won’t be served by a compilation (was a jazz artist’s work ever served by a Greatest Hits package, or better yet, those godawful “Love Songs” compilations?), so future generations are going to need a starting point. I’d say this might be a good one. This would be the place to hear what Bartok sounds like rubbing shoulders with barrelhouse, hard bop, and fire music. Fifty years from now, when neophytes and college students want to namecheck a jazz pianist, they’ll be able to dial this up on their music devices (whatever form they’ll then take). Wispy-chinned humanities students will attempt to impress worldly young women with this one (just like The Koln Concert). They’ll fail, of course, but that won’t be Matthew Shipp’s fault.

I’M FOND OF lists. It’s a music-geek cliche, isn’t it, one exposed by Nick Hornby and John Cusack. Like most cliches, its basis is truth. Lists help me make sense of a mountain of cultural products that might otherwise smother me. So it is with music, and the impetus for my having started a music blog to begin with, the Year End List. You can be sure the Art of the Improviser will take a spot on the 2011 edition of that list. Album of the Year? Quite possibly. What about: Album of a Career?

I’m not necessarily claiming that Art of the Improviser is Matthew Shipp’s greatest recording. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be responsible for choosing the “best” from a career that has included Flow of X, Nu Bop, Zo, Piano Vortex and New Orbit (among others). Neither am I saying that he won’t yet top it in a career that has already been lengthy and which will, with luck, continue for several more decades. What I am saying is that that which makes Shipp unique and valuable – his vast knowledge married to technique, his intriguing fragmentary melodies, his generosity and openness, the ability to sustain and develop a musical idea over an extended performance, and his respect for his audience – it’s all there.

TUMBLING NOTES, PASSING years. There’s no rush to pick this disc up. It will wait for you, just as significant portions of your jazz collection waited for forty or more years and over several different formats for you to get around to adding them to your shelf. Shipp will still be around, or he won’t. CDs will still exist, or they won’t. But this recording will persist, somewhere, in some format, and you might finally get around to asking yourself, What about this Shipp guy they’re still talking about? And so you’ll find your copy. And you’ll see, yes, he was that good. It’s all there.

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