The Art of the Improviser
February 24, By John Sharpe
Any who have witnessed Matthew Shipp in action over the past few years will know that the pianist's bravura concert displays often eclipse his studio output. Unlike many jazz musicians the vast majority of Shipp's oeuvre has been recorded away from an audience. His previous four releases on Thirsty Ear have alternated between trio and solo format, but now he combines the two on this double-disc live album.
With its echo of Ornette Coleman's similarly monikered collection of outtakes, and a hint of Brad Mehldau's Art of the Trio Warner Brothers series, the album title stakes out Shipp's place as one of the foremost piano stylists on the modern jazz scene. Each disc manifests a continuous stream, drawing deep from his repertoire along with one standard. On the first, documenting a performance in Troy, New York, the pianist is joined by longtime collaborator Whit Dickey on drums, and new trio member Michael Bisio on bass, while on the second, from New York City's Poisson Rouge, Shipp is alone at the keyboard.
Even though his associations with such heavyweights as saxophonists David S. Ware and Roscoe Mitchell might position Shipp at the difficult end of the spectrum, there is nothing here which should cause alarm in the 21st century. Although free in the sense that there may be no predetermined course, the pianist references tunes (his own and those of others) as lucent beacons in otherwise uncharted waters. Melodies ring out, periodically obscured by crashing depth charge chords or by an austere classicism, but nonetheless they can still swing with verve.
Stellar interplay characterizes the trio program, with Bisio's cleanly articulated arco a muscular thrum, maintaining a constant counterpoint to Shipp's idiosyncratic mix of sunshine and thunder. Dickey adds a further layer of complexity, with his intricate cymbal patterns overlaying his pulsing polyrhythms. Each gets a solo feature, forming a segue between themes, with Bisio's particularly fine; his lyricism tumbling down the bass clef in an explosion of bent, slurred notes and buzzing multiple strings, delivered with a gravitas reminiscent of Charlie Haden. Billy Strayhorn's "Take The 'A' Train" fits easily into Shipp's universe, testament to the set's accessibility, while the majestic processional of "Virgin Complex" augmented by Bisio's haunting bowing, makes a fantastic closer.
Starting out with the title track from 4D (Thirsty Ear, 2010), the solo outing offers a more intimate glimpse of the pianist's methods. The trademark rhythmic repetitions, effervescent motifs and bass register crashes are all there, but regularly tempered by a romantic melodicism which can even, at times, recall Keith Jarrett. "Take Me To The Moon" peeks slyly out from the freewheeling improv, before segueing smoothly into the insistent refrain of "Wholetone." Providing another gentle yet satisfying conclusion is the beautifully rippling "Patmos," one of the highlights from One (Thirsty Ear, 2008).
This double-disc set ranks among Shipp's finest work and, while it is not quite career-defining, it forms a wonderful summation of his work in recent years.
By John Sharpe
Live at The Vortex in London,
AAJ, February 17
Drummer Whit Dickey boasts a long association with Shipp, dating back more than two decades, including four years joint tenure in saxophonist David S. Ware's classic quartet in the mid-'90s. However bassist Michael Bisio is a much more recent addition, having joined the band only in 2010 after occasional appearances alongside the pianist. He replaced Joe Morris who was in the bass chair the last time they hit the Vortex back in 2008.
Shipp staked a claim as one of the pre-eminent piano improvisors almost from the start, gigging as a sideman not only with Ware but also with reedman Roscoe Mitchell's Note Factory. Since then he has concentrated on his own music with a string of acclaimed leadership dates, including a diverse sequence on the Thirsty Ear imprint where the pianist also curates the label's Blue Series. Many have incorporated hip hop, rap and electronics stretching Shipp's following beyond the narrow confines of the jazz ghetto. However the pianist's work over the last period has focused largely on the acoustic keyboard in formats familiar from the jazz vernacular.
Typical of a Shipp performance the trio proffered a free flowing exposition across two unbroken sets totaling some 100 minutes, during which they touched on the leader's own compositions, standards, including "Someday My Prince Will Come" and "Green Dolphin Street" as well as other less traditional songs. Rather than forming the basis for the ongoing threeway improvisations, the songs acted as milestones along the way: anchors which grounded the flights of fancy and provided punctuation among the swirling colloquy.
Shipp has a unique style, almost impetuous in his virtuosity, alternating between reiterated motifs, melodic fragments, thunderous crashes from the heels of his hands, cleanly articulated sparkling lines, and a shimmying circular motion pawing and swiping at the keys which produced the piano equivalent of a drone. Threaded throughout were the references, like the pummeling "Frères Jacques" interpolated into one of his own pieces. Sometimes he would play a tune with his right hand while almost obsessively pounding the bass register with the flat of his left hand.
Such was the level of responsiveness that it seemed the threesome could explore any byway they chose. A hammered kernel from Shipp saw Bisio leaning his bass at an angle to better slap at his E string. When the pianist took a jazzy line, the bassist instantaneously morphed into a walking pattern and Dickey picked up the meter on his ride cymbal, only to mutate again not very much later. Of course the interplay ran far beyond a simple cause and effect. When Shipp hinted at "Green Dolphin Street" in fragmented manner, Bisio took up his bow again for an oblique adventure largely parallel to the trajectory of the pianist and drummer. As Shipp toyed with the familiar strains the bassist conducted an arco masterclass, his hyperspeed bowing just above the bridge causing his whole body to shake. Ultimately their changes of direction were like those of a flock of wheeling birds where it is impossible to tell who leads and who follows.
Bisio was a monster: his slightly languorous appearance belied his intense musicality and ringing tone, whether matching Shipp blow for blow or purveying sidelong commentary. Having spent many years on the left coast in Seattle, the bassist returned to his native New York state in 2006, taking up the role of bass instructor at the prestigious Bennington College in Vermont. Since returning he has also helmed his own formidable fourpiece which has four well-received releases featuring his own charts including the stellar Live At Vision Festival XII (Not Two, 2008).
During the first set Bisio echoed and expanded a tumbling piano phrase until his trampolining figure transmuted into a marvelous bass solo. He took up the bow hanging from his trousers to begin a rasping sawing which eventually transformed into a reverential rendition of John Coltrane's "Alabama," which can also be heard on his wonderful solo recital Travel Music (MJB, 2011). As he bowed he also plucked a string at the top of the neck bring about the transition to a pizzicato improvisation with the audience spellbound.
As he patrolled his kit Dickey looked intently down, his head unmoving even as his hands were a blur. But his concentration didn't mean he wasn't listening, as he proved very attentive to the leader's subtle promptings, able to emphasize crescendos with his bass drum while at same time maintaining an invigorating chorus on the rest of his drum set. Not given to showboating, Dickey was full of understated power, prone to tracing wonderfully intricacies on his cymbals, playing as if some limbs were governed by a separate brain. By always keeping a pulse somewhere, he allowed Bisio the leeway for some of his more mercurial excursions. It wasn't until the second set that he took a solo, emerging from beneath a hypnotic refrain by Shipp and Bisio to extemporize with controlled abandon as embellishments, accents and rhythms whirled around his traps.
Even though the second set had its moments, including an exuberantly combustive "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," and an abrupt unison finish spun from one of Shipp's insistent themes, it didn't quite reach the highs of the first. Nonetheless the rapturous applause from the standing room only crowd made one thing clear: piano trios don't come any better than this. For those unable to catch a live show, the trio's half of Shipp's excellent new double disc concert recording The Art of the Improviser (Thirsty Ear, 2011) gives the best indication of what was on offer, even down to some of the same titles.
Matthew Shipp: The Art Of The Improviser,
By Mark Corroto,
AAJ, February 20
By now, critical listeners have formed an opinion about the music of pianist Matthew Shipp. Like his musical predecessors Cecil Taylor and Thelonious Monk, Shipp is an uncompromising voice that tends to force listeners to queue up in line, either for him or against him. With the release of The Art Of The Improviser, he has essentially summed up his first fifty years on two CDs of resolute and committed music.
Like his previous 4D (Thirsty Ear, 2010), Shipp presents a solo recording of original compositions and one standard ("Fly Me To The Moon"), but this time adds a second disc with his new trio (since 2009), featuring bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey.
The first disc presents Shipp's trio, recorded live in Troy, NY in April, 2010. The five lengthy tracks act as a summation of his career so far, pulling music from previous releases as far back as Critical Mass (213CD, 1995) and The Multiplication Table (hatOLOGY, 1997), some of which he reworked on the more recent Harmony And Abyss (Thirsty Ear, 2004).
Shipp often works with big themes; here he commands a steady swinging groove on "The New Fact," while trickling his two-handed improvisational explorations. By returning to the theme, he allows the audience to follow his logic. Likewise when he takes on a monument like "Take The 'A' Train," his dissection is not unlike a DJ's collage of sounds, where snatches of the familiar melody flash by, as if trying to read graffiti on a passing boxcar. The trio also pursues his early classic composition, "Circular Temple," with a reverence for the open chamber free piece, plotting a persistent course of freedom with as much confidence as the younger Shipp demonstrated when he first recorded it.
The solo CD delivers some very inspired music-making, a reminder that the language Shipp he has invented can be subtle and achingly beautiful ("4D") or dense and very dark ("Wholetone"). "Wholetone" progresses as if Shipp is juggling disparate objects: his left hand, pounding dense chords; his right, gamboling. This yin and yang approach makes for a dynamic sound, and showcases Shipp's passion for the music. Tracks such as "Gamma Ray" play with a recurring theme, not unlike a show tune, tethering his explorations of freedom with melody.
Regardless of the approach, Shipp's playing—with or without a net—will be detested by detractors and praised by advocates, making The Art of the Improviser one of his best performances on disc.
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