Matthew Shipp

Sam Prestianni, SOMA / Left Coast Culture

Crashing through the cosmos like a meteor storm, the uncompromising music of pianist Matthew Shipp hits with a sobering immediacy. The artist's 21st century approach toward improvisation (a.k.a. spontaneous combustion) draws an all-ages fan base of rockers and jazzheads alike.

High-profile affionado Henry Rollins has released a number of the pianist's albums on his 213CD and Infinite Zero imprints, including the recent quartet effort, The Flow of X. Jazziz, one of the industry's most widely circulated magazines, hailed the "Gospel According to Matthew Shipp" as its October cover story - a rare honor for a non-mainstream player. From shows packed with the avant-garde faithful at Manhattan's Knitting Factory to an auditorium filled with awe-struck high school students in Anderson, Ind., the infectious power of Shipp's muse in action clearly transcends demographics and scene fetishes.

Perhaps it's the pianist's warrior spirit that's caught hold of the nation's adventurous music seekers. On the liner notes to "The Flow of X," Shipp likens "the essence of jazz" to the "the essence of the killer instinct as defined in Boxing." He cites the "direct, visceral" impact of both boxing an torrential free jazz, and suggests how, "to an untrained ear, jazz can sound crazy, [and] to an untrained eye, boxing can seem mad." But, "as the ear and eye become trained, one teams the complex patterns that underlie the boxing match or the jazz solo." Shipp says both art forms derived from "the theater of Kinetic Gesture [in which] a kaleidoscope of intelligent quick-silver action generates a structure of intense beauty... violent yet dancelike, uncivilized yet graceful, raw yet sophisticated."

Indeed, the 37-year-old Matthew Shipp paradoxically attacks the 88s with an elegant vehemence matched by few others of his (or any) generation. With a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of energy, his combination of thunderous clusters, deeply stacked microtones, and layers upon layers of crisscrossing melodies effects a restless forward motion. While the pianist's rhythmic propulsion conspicuously echoes that of free-jazz veteran Cecil Taylor, don't saddle him with the delimiting post-Cecil epithet.

Shipp has patently integrated the entire history of jazz piano into his performance aesthetic, including the bluesy stride of Fats Waller, the orchestral coloration of Duke Ellington, the rolling bop invention of Bud Powell, the angular quirks of Thelonious Monk, the percussive Africanisms of McCoy Tyner, and even the euro-classical lyricism of Bill Evans. Add to that a cosmic element indebted as much to Jimi Hendrix as to John Coltrane, and you've got a music of enormous breadth.

"Before the World," an outstanding solo concert recorded at the Workshop Freie Musik '95 and issued last year on Berlin's eminent FMP label, provides an up-close earful of Shipp's expansive piano vision. "Thesis," an unprecedented suite of duets with guitarist Joe Morris (released last autumn on Hat Hut's new hatOLOGY imprint), offers another accessible route into Shipp's music. The aural equivalent of conversation, the duo context is an ideal way for newcomers to eavesdrop on -- and actually hear -- the complex nuances of creative jazz. With only two instruments for listeners to focus on, the sometimes cloudy interconnections of the melodic weave come clear.

"The score for 'Thesis,' " explains Morris, "is really detailed in terms of where you can go, but totally free once you get there. There's an amazingly surprising progression of events. That's the thing about Matt. The way events unfold in his music is just unpredictable. And he plays the piano like Hendrix, in that when he goes out, it's not just a line or a melody; he goes out into another universe. And inside that universe anything can happen."

One of the most ingenious six-string players of the day, Morris holds Shipp in the highest esteem. "He plays like somebody designing pyramids or something," says the guitarist. "His things are like monoliths. His piano playing is like this huge spaceship... It's overwhelming."

Shipp's performance on "Thesis" resounds with an awesome presence. Yet Morris strings manage to match the otherworldly sound shapes of the 88s with a melodic clarity so focused that at times both instruments seem to morph into one massive, multirhythmic melody machine. Thoroughly alive, the tones pour forth in a profusion of colors.

If this sounds impossibly extraordinary, you have to understand the improvised music-making process.. When in the thick of a heated improv, the musician acts like a conduit, explains Shipp. So he's not really playing the music, per se, but functioning as a channel through which the music flows. Shipp's longtime partner, bassist William Parker believes music comes from a universal stream, which constantly exists on a vibrational and spiritual plane and is accessible to anyone who is open to it. Matthew Shipp puts it another way: "It's kind of a metaphysical type of thing" and "the piano is secondary... I see the piano in a sense, as an African drum, or as some type of spaceship, at times. I can see it as this language system and alphabet. It has these little notes with melodies on it... [Ultimately] it's just an instrument to transform an inner vision."

Shipp's musical identity materialized in a most peculiar way. As a teenager, the pianist was fascinated by artist-concocted alter egos like David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and Sun Ra's Saturn persona. "I created this character who was this sort of mystic: [this] sort of mathematician." Says Shipp. He called this guy Mr. Chromosome, before he even knew what chromosome meant "and used to translate his language into music. So I kind of had this whole little myth going as a kid."

To this day, he still drops into this metaphysical characterization during a performance, in an effort to "stop the whole thought process and tap into this pool of language." He says, "I try to give myself over to exploring the space between the physicality of making a coherent musical statement and an attempt to lift somebody to the highest plateau of non-mental activity. I actually want to stop people from thought processes," says Shipp, because only then can the music hit where it really counts: on the deepest, most direct level.

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