Spike Taylor, Exclaim!
There are a number of ways to draft an historical diagram of the lineage of piano players in the New York City jazz world. Start at Duke Ellington, for example. Invert a pyramid below his name. Place Thelonious Monk on the next line down. By tracing Duke to Monk to the next level, you'll find many important piano voices; outstanding among them are, say, Cecil Taylor, Mal Waldron and Randy Weston -- three stylistically different pianists, all owing directly to Duke and Monk. Let's pick up at another point of reference -- the '60s avant-garde piano picture. There you'll find a brilliant cluster: Taylor again, plus Andrew Hill, Paul Bley, McCoy Tyner and scores of others. Let's back up, so we don't forget the Bud Powell school of pianistic innovation, nor Lennie Tristano's.
Shift away from the piano center to an idea of place -- like the tradition of intensely creative activity in Manhattan's Lower East Side (Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Cecil again, Sam Rivers). More recently, there's the "downtown" movement in jazz -- and noise -- making (John Zorn, Tim Beme, Sonic Youth).
Gather up these pages, draw some lines down and down to the here and now, still the Lower East Side, now at the end of the 1990s, and we've cornered Matthew Shipp at his bench, throwing double handfuls of keys in among the David S. Ware Quartet, plus his own quartets, trios, duos and solo piano projects.
Since 1989, he's recorded as leader on 16 albums, recorded on an additional ten of Ware's, co-led or contributed from the side on a dozen more. Add to that six more in the can for four different labels. Matt and I talked recently about these streams of history and other dimensions, and drew up the mental lines and arcs. So what of his now? He's turning his back on the historical flow, stepping back, taking a sabbatical. It seems it's not so much a bending under the burden, but more of an exhale, allowing himself and his listeners the required digestion period for 40 or so discs.
Exclaim!: There is a definitive line in the press release of your latest album (DNA, on Thirsty Ear out May 4) that quotes you as saying "I have completed my opus." It reminded me of a time, almost three years ago, when you told me that you felt you were involved in a cycle of recordings that could, conceivably come to an end in a couple of years. So here we are.
Matthew Shipp: Yeah, eureka! Did I really say that three years ago?
I've got it on tape somewhere. This "end of opus" recording is a duo [bassist] William Parker . Why did you elect to end in this way: with William with a remarkably straightforward interpretation of "Amazing Grace" to close the album?
I think that the idea of a duo with William Parker is that our work together is the backbone of so many of my projects. All of what I do, with the exception of solo projects and some other duos, is my piano sound against his t sound and I think that it's an unprecedented sound that we get together. "DNA," I felt that I might explore this relationship of sound in and of itself. for "Amazing Grace," l feel that the melody doesn't really lend itself to stretching. Originally, I was going to do a seven-inch of that with Chan Marshall from Cat Power. We talked about it for a while, but just never got into studio. With "DNA," I really wanted to bookend the album with those two songs -- "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and "Amazing Grace." I just wanted to play songs and add that to the sonic vocabulary of this project like how it's simply stated, how it functions as a coda to the album.
This move that you're, making -- stepping away from the recording studio -- what kind of changes will this bring to your lifestyle?
For one thing, it brings a sense of relief. I don't want to keep putting pressure on myself. I've been working at a very manic pace since the early '90s. If I'm touring constantly, and this is a goal, then the pressure to record for cash advances is gone. I don't want to get into some David Murray syndrome, which is constantly recording for cash, basically - though I do see why some people might do it that way. I just don't want my record career to go that way. I'm not saying that I won't go back in the studio e again - I might not, and I might. The goal for me now is to bring the duo with William Parker, the trio with Mat Maneri and the David S. Ware qua to every city in the world. If this can happen, I'll be so busy that I won't h@ time to go into the studio. Actually, I will be honouring ng the contract that David has with Sony and I do have some projects in the can, and these releases will be staggered out over the next year or two.
Are there other jazz artists you admire who have taken this step back from where the road seemed open for forging ahead?
I really admire David Ware for the way he stepped back from making recordings until he found his group. It took a long time and now it's paying off in dififferent ways. He dealt with it for a long time, he kept his focus, and it seems like it's working for him. Right now is a very good time for this whole school of music. I think we're entering a cycle where jazz might redefine itself. Wait, I don't know if I want to start in about the jazz establishment.
I know it's a subject you theorise about...
Yeah. Now we're past this thing in jazz marketing, where music like ours is being marketed with college rock and alternative music. We're past that. It seems to me that jazz marketing is rotting at its roots. It would be nice to be able to reach people in a non-elitist, non-intimidating way. Jazz marketing is full of some very intense paradoxes. When you consider jazz, and what it represents -- it's supposed to be something revolutionary -- you get surrounded by this minefield of paradoxes. For exarnple, the jazz establishment is basically trying to sell reissues, period. Twenty ways of packaging the same old shit. They want to sign up new people who fit into that frame. They're stopping the creation of the abiliity in people to develop their own creative personalities. After a while, people will forget that's even possible. This jazz establishment (major labels, major festivals, major attitudes) is sowing the seeds of death for the music.
No matter the context, listening in on Matthew Shipp's piano playing is an amazingly now phenomenon. There's no one like him, nor could there have been someone like him before. This fact surely strengthens his, and his collaborating peers', musical argument. These are confounding, yet undoubtedly up times for this music. It's fortunate that there is so much of Matt's music out there. Enjoy it. Step back from your own manic pace, or your place in the construct of the music establishment, and there is a newness for you out of the historically steep piano comer in this music -- called jazz.
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