The ECSTATIC JAZZ of MATTHEW SHIPP
With the releases on a variety of independent labels, the pianist has as many punk-rock fans as jazz fans.
OUTSIDE. That's where Matthew Shipp is at home. The pianist, a disarmingly youthful 35, has established himself as a unique voice in his chosen art form. And he's done it by working on the margins, without the kind of marketing and publicity that makes fashionable stars of sharply dressed, musically orthodox Gen X'ers.
But don't think the East Village resident is some kind of pre-Millennial Don Quixote, a noble refusenik drunk on the elixir of his impossible ideals. He's a cat through and through, a jazz musician to the bone. It's simply that Shipp insists on having a career his way, taking an alternative route to a source that has nourished generations of fellow seekers. Unlike some of his aesthetic forefathers, who pushed boundaries during the 1950s and '60s but found that the avant-garde was a lousy meal ticket, he also makes a living.
So what if his rehearsal studio is a nearby community center? In his "living room," a Second Street watering hole overseen by garrulous bartender named "Handsome Dick" Manitoba, Shipp's not washing dishes. And he's not living in artistic exile.
"Improvising is a lifestyle. My lifestyle," says Shipp, whose work as a solo artist and bandleader has evolved almost symbiotically alongside his long-term affiliation with titanic tenor saxophonist David S. Ware. He joined the bear-like musician's catalytic quartet in 1990, quickly finding a secure hold amid the tumult and transcendence that marked the group's intense explorations.
Much as John Coltrane did after the landmark "A Love Supreme," the music charts deep psychic space, launching a spiritual journey so demanding that the performers appear to exceed their physical limitations in the effort, shaking free of the flesh to speak in tongues.
"As a kid, especially, there was one point in my development when I played like [Coltrane pianist] McCoy Tyner," Shipp says. "It's just really weird that I did hook up with a tenor saxophonist like David. The rolling harmonic focus that I have is a perfect complement to his playing. There's a certain flow."
Imply that the pianist has learned how to remain nailed to his bench in gale-force winds, and he laughs: "You know, some nights I'm transported out of my body. Other times, I don't know how I'm going to make it through the night."
Through it all, Shipp has persevered. Thrived. After six years and a batch of albums with Ware (most on the Japanese label DIW and the American underground rock label Homestead), the Delaware native suddenly finds himself with an oeuvre. His current release, Flow of X (2.13.61Records), marks his growth as a bandleader.
Shipp guides a quartet -- Ware quartet bandmates William Parker, bass, and Whit Dickey, drums, joined by violinist Mat Maneri -- through electrically charged fields of urgent improvisation. But the pianist also commands stark, meditative interludes that resonate like a final transmission from some long-dark star.
New solo piano and trio discs are due soon from the blue chip European improviser labels FMP and HatART. These pending breakthroughs do not symbolize a plateau - Shipp's ambitions are as vast as they are volatile.
"I really envision myself having a commercial breakthrough with a certain album that would be solo piano," Shipp says, rousing himself, over a mid-afternoon breakfast at a restaurant near the Third Avenue studio he shares with his wife. "I'd play anywhere: hospitals, mental institutes, churches. I'd go anywhere, anywhere. Like Hootie and the Blowfish. [They] played like every fraternity in the South for 10 years until they found 13 million motherfuckers that would buy their album."
It's tough to imagine how Shipp's incantatory, style -- which balances pile-driving physicality with a prismatic grace that transfigures inspirations such as bop-era wizard Bud Powell and Russian mystic Scriabin into an intricately coded personal language -- would go down on Frat Row. His performances make steep demands on listeners, who must leap into the fray as if toe-to-toe in a cerebral mosh pit. But to quote actor Harvey Keitel on the art of performance, "You want more? You pay more. "
As befits this alt.jazz trailblazer, however, many of his fans laced up their first pair of Doc Martens years ago. Much of the musician's output has been released through small, punk-oriented rock labels that suffer uneven distribution.
But thanks in part to the unlikely sponsorship of Henry Rollins, who became a fan of Shipp's self-produced 1992 album, Circular Temple, the pianist has achieved a profile foreign to more conventional jazzers.
Rollins, the muscle-bound former vocalist for the seminal California punk act Black Flag, signed Shipp to his 2.13.61 imprint, and reissued Temple on his Infinite Zero Archives label, alongside such new-wave-era golden oldies as The Gang of Four and The Contortions. As a result, active listeners are more likely to catch up on the artist's exploits in such subterranean fanzines as Your Flesh, Tuba Frenzy and Apathy Trend than in the more traditional bibles of the post-bop era like Down Beat and Jazz Times.
"The future of appreciation for this music, we'll just term it ecstatic jazz, is with young folks" contends Steven Joerg of Homestead, a New York-based label whose back catalog includes such influential pre-grunge rock acts as Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., yet now is emphasizing new developments in jazz. "And. the future is beginning now."
Shipp relishes the irony, that a new audience for the music can be nurtured through the same pipeline that won Nirvana its first kudos. But in fact it's a growing trend. Flip through some of those 'zines, and amid the thesis-length paeans to porn stars, comic-book artists and pulp fiction you can also read about Chicago tenor firebrand Ken Vandermark or blistering (Albert) Aylerite saxophonist Charles Gayle.
"It's funny that the punk-rock infrastructure has picked up on the fact that jazz didn't die in 1958" says Shipp, an easygoing conversationalist who can turn as pugilistic as his heavyweight hero, Evander Holyfield, when talk turns to mainstream mandates in jazz. He decries what he views as an industry "where any type of real thought is not permitted, so that you can be left with the impression that the language is dead. It's just such a finite thing they're trying to represent!"
Shipp might as well be drawing a line in the sand, but really he's just striving to represent a distinct vision of what jazz tradition constitutes: the tradition of innovation. Taking his cues from Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill and Paul Bley, pianists who emerged in the '50s and '605 with abstract poetry and a wayward fearlessness, Shipp embraces complex themes with a visceral energy that can belie the intellectual and emotional forces that guide it.
"He reminds me of Hendrix playing 'The Star-Spangled Banner,"' says Joe Morris, the Boston guitarist who hired Shipp to perform on his latest disc, Else, where (released, like Ware's discs, on Homestead).
"He's out there in the stratosphere and right down here in your heart. There's a monolithic size to what he does!"
Enrolled for a brief period at the New England Conservatory (where his classmates included organist extraordinaire John Medeski), Shipp abandoned his studies and left Boston for New York in 1984. He sought out future Ware bassist Parker veteran of Manhattan's amorphous downtown scene, and began a musical relationship that continues today. Yet, Parker says, Shipp's concept was already there when they met.
"He's like an architect" says the prolific improviser, whom Shipp first heard perform on Taylor's 1981 album The Eighth. "He's building something, and when he gets through has built a cathedral or a church, usually." Parker further emphasizes his partner's profound connection to the underlying structures: "The roots of what Matthew is doing come out of the dark blue areas of the blues."
Shipp, whose Episcopal background includes a fascination with mysticism and ritual process, can wax equally metaphysical. "The Mass to me was very high drama," says the former altar buy. " You have a god coming into a host and there's a whole invocation of him to get to that point. You have the transubstantiation of bread into the body of a god and wine into the blood of a god. This probably has a lot to do with how I view music."
The notion of being in the world, but not of the world, is appealing enough to make the pianist a natural Sun Ra disciple. But ultimately he's pragmatic about career options: head in the cosmos, feet on the ground.
"It seemed to me like nature would not allow an individual style to develop in mainstream jazz:" he says. "A real style, like Monk's. I'm not saying that as a dogmatic statement; it just felt that way to me." Even the tendency of listeners to liken Shipp to Taylor, one of his collegiate heroes, has vanished. "if you play dissonant, that's usually the first thing people say," Shipp continues. "But I've already gotten past that hurdle, I don't even think about it.
"There were lots of directions that I could have gone. But I found a really strong calling. I have a style, and one that asserts itself. It calls. And you can turn your back on it, but you're risking some psychic and spiritual damage. In that sense, I don't have a choice."
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