Matthew Shipp: Piano Sutras
by Lyn Horton,
The Paradigm for Beauty
What if Matthew Shipp’s Piano Sutras were to appear in record stores and in the catalogs of online distributors out of the blue. And we were to say: Who is this pianist, Matthew Shipp?
Perhaps then, his music could be seen as itself, without history, as a beginning of contemporary jazz and improvised music. For in this recording, Shipp establishes a new set of formulas, which embody just a mere wisp of meaning behind the Eastern religious word, sutra.
To lift one’s listening into a consciousness not involving what one already knows is difficult, perhaps. But it isn’t, if the piano music travels on a journey that is peaceful, far from arrogant, certain, strong and pure.
That Shipp simply plays straightforwardly, without any flourishes or superficial performance drama, becomes the vehicle for perceiving his language. The way he combines and integrates the notes into instinctively measured phrasing, takes them through shifting repetitions and non-perfunctory rhythm structures presents a grounded elaboration on how his mind-more like his soul-is shaped.
He works the entire keyboard, building ascending and descending cascades. His left hand is magnetized to the darkness of the lower register. But his right hand knows the quick treble tremolo, single high note and lullaby-like melodies. Harmonically, the music is perfect. Of course, dissonance falls through the cracks every once in a while. The twists and turns are necessary for the elocution of the familiar. The music is all original, fraught with Shipp-isms. As a mature painter seems to paint with the same array of strokes from painting to painting, so Shipp commandeers his own palette of chords, synchronicity, juxtapositions, dynamic, and codas throughout the music-scape.
Piano Sutras is one of a handful of solo albums; the first being, One. The distance between his first and Piano Sutras is vast. When One was released in 2005, Shipp was a younger guy, beginning to narrow down his field of vision. Ironically, this field of vision is the cosmos. Piano Sutras aligns with that field of vision, but with more coherence and, paradoxically, relaxed detail than in any other solo effort. His musical statements are more honed and resultantly richer. This mode of development for an artist is not absolutely the way it always goes. Some artists can drop off their path, believing that anything they do after a certain point in their musical lives, is worthy because of their past accomplishments. In contrast, Shipp possesses an unswerving integrity. Way back when, his music had unrelenting vitality within fewer frames; he was in search of greater landing strips. Now it speaks from a dense core, which is alive, breathing, unquestionably vigorous, yet markedly controlled.
The early twentieth century novelist, Virginia Woolf, once proclaimed in one of her diaries that she wanted to write never using adjectives, only verbs. Shipp’s music fits within that category. Silence is struck only when it is warranted. Shipp’s work is proactive, even when he plays his versions of Coltrane’s Giant Steps or Shorter’s Nefertiti. There seems to be quality in each piece that gives Shipp promise for the future.
How our lives are understood is abstract, in forms which have nothing to do with the hard-wired technology behind the keyboard that is recording this article. It is in that abstract realm that Shipp operates. The realm is evocative of all that is spiritual, all that is without end.
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