Matthew Shipp

Spike Taylor, Coda Magazine

It's a piece of work keeping track of New York pianist and composer Matthew Shipp. Six months ago, when the main text of this interview was taken down, he was in the midst of a summer of full-on activity long on festival appearances with the David S. Ware Quartet and steeped in the day-to-day management of his own affairs as a leader of solo, duo, trio and quartet projects for some five or six different labels.

In the excitement of the moment of charting the course of a bright present and future in the new music, I neglected to track backwards to focus on some of the events that shaped Matthew Shipp's emergence onto the scene what is the New York avant-garde of the 1990's. We back-tracked in a backroom of the Music Gallery in Toronto in mid-December when his trio with bassist William Parker and drummer Susie Ibarra took the town.

Chronologically, then, Matthew Shipp began, his formal piano studies in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware and became a record-buying junkie by the age of 13. With the providence of a classic jazz collection in his parents' home, young Matthew navigated through art rock, pop and other flirtations before finding his ears in the music of John Coltrane, Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor and other giants of the 1960's black avant-garde.

He was hooked and bad. He took to practicing for 12 hours a day and more in college at the University of Delaware, in study with former Coltrane teacher Dennis Sandole, and at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

"I didn't really want to do more school but it was good in the way that I got to get out of Delaware and have a year to get my style together before going to New York and that's what happened to me that year in Boston. My style fell together."

He made the move to New York focused on playing "with William Parker, and to play a certain kind of music." Early gigs in the city paired him with Boston friend alto Saxophonist Rob Brown, with whom he still shares in a lot of musical activity.

Matthew observes here, "You move to New York City and you have no idea how it's going to fall together -- you know, I moved here in 1984 and the Cadence album (Sonic Explorations with Rob Brown) didn't come out until 1988, and I had groups in that four year period like Convection with Steve McCall, and what I remember from those days is that we had a producer to produce our demo tapes and I was very surprised that I had tapes like that and I couldn't get signed by a record company."

"It was really eye-opening - like 'wow, what do I have to do?' These tapes with Abdul Wadud and Leo Smith and Steve McCall and William and just - nothing (laughs). I guess it takes some people 20 or 30 years to get recognized for their work and when I look at my career of 10 years or so, and when you're expecting something to happen everyday, a decade is a long time."

"That's a lot of days when nothing happens."

These days, though, there's plenty happening with Matthew Shipp and his musical associates. Upcoming recordings include a solo album for FMP, on hatArt a duo with Joe Morris and a trio recording with two string players, and more work out of the piano corner of David S. Ware's Quartet.

I met Matthew Shipp at a bar called 2A on the Lower East Side of Manhattan this day to discuss piano-centric ideas, and to catch him where he finds himself in an exciting circle of avant-garde jazz activity.

New recordings with Joe Morris and with Roscoe Mitchell are fresh on the racks and he continues in his longtime associations with David S. Ware and with William Parker in performance and recording projects. Other things go on too.

Our conversation allowed us to step outside this circle for awhile and get a good look at it from the outside and he's got a lot of interesting things to say on all fronts -- from the business end to the innermost mid-solo mindset.

This Matt Shipp is cagey and philosophical about means and ends and beginnings in the 1990's jazz avant-garde. So we, talked about a lot of things. There was no need to dwell on the 'then' or 'when', we got down to 'now'. We drank Brooklyn Browns, Mingus' "Ah Um" was on the record player.

ST: You spend a lot of time with the piano, do you have thoughts about it as an object -- this "thing?"

MS: That's an interesting question. First of all, I play the piano and my whole identity is caught up in it but, actually, my artistic output is not really that of a pianist. I mean, I have this inner vision of what I do and the piano is incidental to that vision. So, yeah, I've spent a lot of time with the piano and it's good that I have this to put the inner vision across, but, apart from that purpose, the piano is incidental.

Obviously I love the piano but it's strange you know? You've got this big thing with these white and black keys and they're like an alphabet of sorts, waiting to be articulated. To me, the piano is an extension of my brain and my body. My physical and mental and spiritual being.

You know, to do the kind of music we do well, there has to be a certain mindset, you have to really be there -- it even goes past mindset, it's a life-style. It's a certain psychological space, a well-defined thing and you can't be halftime with it or fool with it.

I feel that some people are born to play this music, you're either there or you're not. Playing this music is about a mode of being so you've really got to walk down the street thinking and being it -- so it's like a lot of things, right? If you're a great bebop player you eat sleep and think that type of phrasing. You live it to your core. The whole lifestyle is a preparation for those fifty minutes onstage and if he or she is really communicating then everything they do is tunnelled into that.

Can you tell me about your place in this psychological space?

For me personally, the act of playing music is a completely non-verbal act and I try to program my music and my solos through some kind of associative train of images that mean something to me placed in the concert environment and what goes on then and there. That somehow feeds my imagination. Usually there's a stoppage in the process of thought... it's an uncertain realm of emotions, if I could call it that. Some type of system outside the realm of language.

I just try to position myself within that realm but you can never control that. It's completely uncontrollable, that whole thing, and every situation is different. Sometimes I could be in some kind of an autistic space and sometimes I don't want to know anything about the piano. There are millions of head-spaces you can fall into when you're performing, the best thing is really just to have fun.

So are you having some fun? You're happy in this thing that you do?

Well, I don't know what "happiness" means but this is what I've got to do. I spend so much time doing it that I don't do a whole lot of other things. I went to a catholic school, right? They teach you that priests have a vocation, they get a calling and they just know. I get that kind of feeling, too. It wasn't much of a choice, it's the thing I've got to do and that's that.

There's something in the mind and body, a realm of thoughts that manifest themselves in a product -- and I'll use the word "product" here -- that is an articulation of an understanding of structure as related to this object -- the piano. In a sense, one can have a whole map or globe in their head with thoughts of geography and anyone can sit down at a piano and make some kind of structure based on how they synthesize time and space.

If you're a music student and you're trying to learn an instrument there are certain things you've got to do to learn and certain approaches and there are certain people who come to a point in their musical life where they say "fuck the world -- I'm gonna do it this way" and others don't.

With Monk as an example - Monk said essentially "fuck the world - I've got a way of doing things and I'm gonna do it" and he did it and for a long time he didn't have a career. People said "you're wrong" and "you can't do that" but he defied the world. He said he's right and everybody else is wrong and he kept to that. For somebody to do that, that is somebody who so definitely believes in their system of thought -- I'm not even going to call it thought -- he had, structurally, a way of seeing things and that's that... that's that.

So where do you see yourself in your musical career?

I don't know what the future holds in store as far as direction for me. Right now I'm involved in a series of recordings that will come to an end in a couple of years. I'm finishing up a certain cycle and once that cycle is finished, my recording career will be over and that's just two years from now (laughs). I'll just try to keep doing good albums, trying to keep things fresh and new or it's a matter of trying to completely change the concept. I don't know... it's a couple of years off.

Does this idea of an 'end' frighten you?

Nothing frightens me anymore, I've lived in New York too long. I don't give a fuck about things like that. Really I just try to get through the day, that's what it's about. Do your best and try to take things lightly -- I know that people think I'm this very serious person and I am, but at the same time, if I become a parody of myself in five years I don't care, you know? I just try to get through the day, that's my major thing. Spending time worrying about a lot of stuff doesn't get you anywhere.

Basically, my whole thing is I sit in front of an instrument and I do music, I just play a certain way. Anyone who hears me play knows I have a classical background but I'm not walking around trying to be John Cage or some other white 20th Century composer. It's funny though, when I first came to New York my whole mindset was focused on not being considered some post-Cecil Taylor pianist.

I talked a lot about certain 20th Century composers, and I love a lot of that music, but I talked a rap not unlike Anthony Braxton's and I was talking to Charles Gayle on the street one day and I said something about some composer and he turned to me and said "I don't know nothing about no music, man," and that just crystallized something for me. That I just want to be taken as a person that has a certain type of talent and can just sit down and do what I do.

To me, the way Braxton presents himself is just very archaic and this ties into the labels who produce the recordings of certain composers. Who your audience is to be, who you're trying to reach. With David S. Ware and William Parker and myself as examples -- what we do is "jazz" it's that simple.

We are on rock labels (Homestead, 213, Infinite Zero) but we are jazz musicians and that's cool. That's cool because these labels are committed to presenting this music to younger audiences and these young people, they like what we do, say, because the expression is vital to them, they are just young and they like discovering life. They can associate us with Homestead or Henry Rollins and there's some nineteen year old kid who sees that and likes the whole energy and they have good ears and good instincts, maybe, and they know they like what they hear.

The whole label presentation issue in our music is about not trying to come off like a theoretician, like Braxton for example. It's just we do this music, we think it's valuable and that's that. We try to present something fresh and vital and these people who put out our records recognize that commitment on our part. The people who sign us -- they know -- they have record collections and they know the jazz avant-garde of the 1960's and they really feel a different spirit and energy coming from what we do.

I feel that strangeness, too. How jazz is marketed and packaged to these "adult" audiences. Like it's for the experts or for connoisseurs. There's this snobbery that you have to cut through just to get into the music and feel whether you even like it or not...

Well, you just hit it with that statement. You capsulized it. For a young person to try to develop a career in this music or even for some young person who wants to listen to it there's this whole marketing thing in place. It emerges now and again like, say, the "young lions" phenomenon.

Jazz is hard enough to listen to for a lot of young people and these marketing schemes just set up these barriers... you're right -- the snobbery that you have to cut through is just so intense and when you look at the whole thing for what it is and you see the whole business infrastructure you've got to turn away from that.

It's like some law in physics, right? About polar opposites -- I can't remember that law but you're right -- see it for what it is and do the opposite. Yeah. Don't even address it. There's this monster in front of you and it's big but once you get a good look at this monster... wait... (laughs)...  o.k... it's like in boxing (laughs)...  I don't care how great somebody is, there's always something in there that makes them vulnerable to the opponent's arsenal. I guess, more simply, if the music's gonna thrive, young people have to be involved and be interested in it and college radio -- where these labels are most concerned -- is key.

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