Matthew Shipp

yakuza, inspired by punk rock and travel

When I really got serious about music I was studying classical piano, but I started to listen to a lot of jazz. Actual orations between things. To me it was all music, it was all people trying to communicate something about existence to other people, in the hope that there is shared communication, and in the hope that since there is shared communication, there is shared distribution of cash - people like what you do so they pay to hear it and you get to make a living.

At one point it was very clear in my subconscious mind that music was a shared way of communication, but then you have all these political separations, and it's very hard to get a grasp on what's going on for a kid who's trying to be open minded and is buying records. You're sincerely into this and you're sincerely into that, but it's hard to put together. What is classical music?, what is jazz?, what is rock and roll?, what's the difference?, what's the sameness?, why are these people doing this?, what is communication?, what is language? what is a shared social situation where you go to a club and hear musicians play and there is some type of communion between the fans of it and the performers?, why do you go to a bar to hear this and for this other thing you go to a concert hall and they don't serve alcohol? For a kid it's hard to put all this together, but then usually at a later age you see more clearly how things come about, why they get pigeonholed and what the common denominators are.

It was interesting because as a kid there was always a kind of very open area of my mind where I just accepted the phenomenon of music for what it was. To me it was a phenomenon that exists in the world, period. For instance, I was into, and I still am, pop music that a lot of people wouldn't associate me with. For instance, Carole King's Tapestry is an album that I used to play a lot as a kid and really liked. But then I would get a John Cage album, and to me that was just something else that existed, so I would check it out with a very open mind. My thinking was that some people got together at some point in human history and decided to do this, and if they did it I always assumed that there were reasons why they did it. These just weren't some freaked-out motherfuckers in a void doing something, there was always some reason that people got together and decided to do something. I always wanted to get to the motivation of why it was they were doing it, try to understand it in some historical perspective, and just deal with it for that reason.

So to answer the question how did I get into jazz, I would say it was through my parents' record collection and especially Ahmad Jamal because they liked him a lot. They had records by, and stories about Thelonious Monk, because they had met him and he was very popular, commercially, in the late 50s. I also saw Ahmad Jamal on public TV one time do a concert, and I was like, "ah ha." He played a blues and it really connected with me. I was fascinated by the whole thing. I made myself at home with my parents' jazz collection. They had everything, Count Basic, Duke Ellington, and Clifford Brown because he was from Wilmington, and my mother was friends with him. Mainly they had the things that were popular in the 50s like Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, and Erroll Garner.

Other than jazz, they had the light classical stuff that would have been popular, things like Liberace, Roger Williams, kind of pop pianists that were classically trained. They had a lot of stuff like that, Van Cliburn albums, cause he had won the Tchaikovsky competition in the 50s and was a household name. It wasn't like they went out of their way to search things out, but they had a lot of stuff like that, a lot of Ray Charles. So I was listening to their collection as a kid, apart from all the stuff that I bought because it was the stuff that my friends listened to, like the Bay City Rollers and Queen. I was really into soul music, Stevie Wonder was my idol, but around the time I was 12 1 actually really started getting into jazz, searching stuff out, and buying John Coltrane.

I actually got into John Coltrane at a very early age. He formed my whole world view of what I wanted to accomplish in music. To. me, he was a jazz musician, but when he got his own group together, after he got out of his Prestige period and really got the John Coltrane quartet together (and especially from A Love Supreme on) he was trying to delve into a universal pool of language. Once I heard A Love Supreme, bam, I knew what I wanted to do with music, I had a very clear idea in mind. It took a while to get there, but it was very clear.

I was into jazz a while before I actually tried to play it (because I was studying classical piano) but then a friend of mine showed me the blues one day, so I knew what the blues were, and I just started from there. One time I was listening to a Count Basic album and he did a solo on the blues and something just hit me to figure out what the solo was. I ran down to the piano and I figured out that 12-bar solo that he played, and from there I was on my way.

I constantly, always, try to learn from everything I hear, even things I don't really like per se. There are certain people that really are major influences as far as what I want to do in music and how I want to approach it. They have changed throughout the years, but I would say the major, major influences, would start with John Coltrane, number one. In every way, he has influenced my idea of what a jazz musician is, my idea of what a work ethic is and just how I approach, spiritually, trying to break down the barriers of genre.

Not that I know if he was conscious himself of trying to do that, but I think he delved into realms that are past jazz, though I don't think there is such a thing as a definition of jazz. Politically, there are people trying to force a certain definition onto jazz about what it is, and those people would claim Coltrane as a jazz musician, but I think they are totally the antithesis of the spirit that Coltrane tried to generate.

In a sense, critics called Coltrane anti-jazz, but a lot of the neo-cons, the Wynton Marsalis type of people, have a whole spirit that is anti-jazz if you consider Coltrane a jazz musician, in what he tried to do. I think despite their vehement love for jazz, in their attempts to define it, they're outside of it, because to me jazz has always been an organic thing that has grown and always outgrown any definition you would have of it at a certain period in history. It's a live organism that would shed its skin and look back at itself and actually laugh.

So other major influences would include Bach, just because growing up I studied classical music very seriously, and I've always actually copped an attitude about classical music. It really bothers me the way it's institutionalized. But I think that if you really look at what classical music is, the music of Bach has kind of always escaped it, it has always been kind of outside of it. That's why maybe even though everybody knows Bach is great, he wouldn't ever be a big seller, in the sense that maybe Beethoven or somebody like that is.

Bartok is a big influence on me too, because I think what he did with folk music is important, bringing it into his music. He never used anything in a negative sense, he always had respect for the materials he used, and regardless of what he incorporated, it was always him. I think he's really one of a kind in western music history. His music is just really beautiful, there's nothing political about it, it's just what it is and it's really powerful.

As far as pianists, and especially pianists in the jazz realm, I would say Bud Powell, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill are all influences, as well as Erroll Garner, Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington is a huge influence, mainly because he was able to keep a band together for so many years. The way he wrote for his band, it was like a family, and a whole body of work grew out of the communal thing that they had. Albert Ayler is a big influence on me, Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, also. Those are some of the people that have really influenced me, and actually, I would say Jimi Hendrix has been one of my biggest influences, but the list goes on and on and on.

I'll mention David Bowie as an influence because when I was a kid growing up, I listened to Bowie a lot, he fascinated me for a lot of reasons. I really liked the album Low, which was the first album he did with Brian Eno. Just from a musical standpoint, there are certain albums I really liked, and Low was an album that really, really turned my head around. On side one are some really innovative types of pop songs, and on side two are some instrumental tracks that he did with Eno that I think is some of the best minimalist music that I've ever heard.

I was always kind of fascinated with him, with the Ziggy Stardust album, and the fact that this shy kid created this rock and roll messiah character that he hid behind. I don't really want to get into this now, but I had a composite character that I developed for myself which I always saw as a science fiction character. I called him Mr. Chromosome, and I kind of hid behind him. The whole myth that comes out of Sun Ra, where he claims that he's from Saturn, I adopted that, too. So I had this mythic figure who was a mathematician coming from another planet who develops this whole language, in the realm of avant garde jazz piano or whatever, but I used him as a mythological foundation for what I did at the time.

My musical concept is definitely based on a shared language, so therefore I'm only working on projects with people I've worked with for years. I've worked with William Parker for 9 years, Whit Dickey for 5 years and David S. Ware for 6 years. I'm keeping it in the family. I feel a lot more comfortable that way and even though I could do a lot of projects with a lot of people, it's just not my way of working.

I try to develop a very coherent language that's built up over a long period of time with like-minded people and people that I respect personally, too - people who I can work with, where there's a bond and trust. It's not unlike, the situation that Sun Ra had, that's the only way I feel comfortable. Also to me commercially it makes a lot more sense, because you can get a certain thing developed and people know where to go for that thing.

I basically feel very good about the recordings I've done. There are obviously things I feel stronger about and there are one or two things that, even though I think they're good recordings, aren't specifically how I would represent myself -- I'm not gonna go into what they are, or why, because I don't want to force my idea of what I do upon someone else. A particular listener might bring a completely other set of criteria to the listening experience and actually they might prefer a situation that might not be my favorite, so in a sense what I feet is not really relevant or important. But I do think that the recordings are definitely a good representation of what I do, I wouldn't allow them to be put out if they weren't.

Ever since I was a kid and was developing an idea of what it is to be a musician in the world, it always to me seemed to have two parts. There is always having a very clear picture in your mind of what it is to be a live performer, and always having a clear picture in your mind of what it is to record. I think a lot of people maybe don't really try to get a very clear picture of both realms.

I think that when you're preparing yourself for a career in music, there has to be a very, very specific approach to each process. For instance, I was talking about Bowie earlier. He is somebody who, when he was doing strong recordings, had with every recording a very specific concept. There was a very specific approach, there was a very specific gestalt behind the whole recording. He was not someone who would go into the studio and just do anything, it was always a very specific thing. Even if he went into the studio and just laid tracks down, just jammed, that was the specific thing for this recording. Everything was very well thought out. Even if a situation was purely spontaneous, the fact that that situation was supposed to be spontaneous fit into some other gestalt that was very well thought out.

So, I always approach both realms separately: the idea of the musician being represented in the world as a recording artist, and the idea of how to be a great live performer - how to go out there and put yourself on the line and have both a live presence and a studio presence that can translate to somebody's living room when they put the CD or vinyl on and lie back on their couch and close their eyes and attempt to get into the music. I've always been conscious of trying to develop a thing for both - I think they're tied together, and they're mutually exclusive.

I never got to see Glenn Gould live, I don't know what he was like as a live performer, but I do know what his albums are like and I do know he is someone who obviously redefined what a recording process was for a classical musician - how a classical musician can actually put themselves in the world commercially through the recording process. He obviously had an understanding or a concept of what he was doing. It all comes down to concept.

I don't know if there's such a thing as having a concept for a live performance. Obviously if you're doing it well, you've got a concept of what you're doing, but there just may be some- thing that's innate for certain people and not for others. I don't know, I'm asking a question actually - can you work at performance skills or is it something that is innate?

What does it comes down to, being a ham or just an intense egotist or actually somebody that is not an egotist but who's in touch with a certain realm of language and can just go into a certain trancelike ability and really communicate - have those communication skills to be able to really bring across a whole realm of language to the audience. I don't know what constitutes those kind of performance skills. I don't know if it's something that's innate or something that you learn, but I do know when I'm watching a performance if the performer has that or not. I would tend to think that a lot of it's innate and that a lot of it has to o with a particular bent of mind.

I like to think of my records as a flowing continuum of musical expression - I don't really see my musical output as any particular piece, I'm into the whole hologram effect. Theoretically, My whole output can be looked at as one piece, but any one piece does contain the information of the whole, and any one thing is just one chapter in the whole story. Different things erupt and/or surface at a certain time, which means that that is what this recording is about, because that day that we were in the studio this is what surfaced. I think my Cadence album is a lot different than what I'm doing now, but there's also a similarity. Things go under the surface, and things resurface at other periods.

I would like to think of my whole output as a vast panorama, a many faceted panorama, but yet a kaleidoscope, where things surface and disappear for a long time. Like how something that's in somebody's psyche can disappear for years and the manifestation of a set of circumstances will erupt many years later and bring about behavior that you're not even aware was there.

The psyche is a very dense and very vast landscape, a landscape that's beyond our comprehension, and there's millions and millions of particles there. It is possibly infinite - the psyche possibly goes the length and volume of the Earth, and past that. Memory is in our psyche, but it possibly goes to a realm past memory, through our own personal history and through the whole history of the Earth.

I hope to touch on that vast continuum of things that can go past personal history. And past personal history, there's the history of music and the history of whatever gestures have formed music. There's the history of language and there's the history of where language becomes physical gesture. To me, physical gestures are what constitute the beginning of music. Somebody has to beat on the drums, you hit an instrument, you hit a piano, you blow into an instrument. So all music is primitive. I don't care how complex somebody thinks their music is, you're dealing with the genesis of those types of gestures, let's not get past it.

To make a noise on a drum, you've got to hit it, you've got to beat it. To play a piano, you've got to hit it, you've got to beat it. To play a sax you've got to blow into it. So you're dealing with air, you're dealing with physical force. And even if somebody thinks they're thinking all these complex thoughts, just the genesis of the physics behind thinking a thought is some type of force.

Music never escapes that primitive thing, that's what music is to me. You're always dealing with the genesis of gesture. If you're dealing with a music where there's a trance state, you're al- ways trying to get to the beginnings of things, or to the genesis. Even if something takes on a modern slant, you're just not going to get away from those very basic things. Those very basic things are what gives anything its appeal any- way, they are what's going to be any common type of human denominator, the things that'll make somebody come up to you and say yeah, I dig what you're doing, I get something out of it, I like it.

You can see it if you go to a Pentecostal church with the whole phenomenon of people going into a trance and speaking in tongues. I am really influenced by mystical Christianity anyway. I hear this in Coltrane's music, where he seems sometimes that he's trying to push past to the Tower of Babel, to that realm of universal language. In the Bible, you have people who were speaking in one language before that tower was built.

Or if you get into the Book of Acts, you can see it on the day that Peter was speaking to the people and they all understood him, even though they were people from all different countries. I was really a very kind of devout religious kid, though I'm not anymore. Well, really I am, but the type of thing that I'm into is Taoism which says that there is no particular religion involved, per se. But I was really into Christianity through a lot of my childhood, whereas now I'm into mystical Christianity, but not as a religious thing at all, it's more of the symbolism behind it. That type of thing really influences and informs what I do a lot.

Recorded Output:
I moved to New York in 1984, and I had a demo tape at the time which has never been released. My first album was a duet album with Rob Brown, the alto sax player, and that came out on the Cadence label. Rob and I had some extra money and we had been playing together every day for a few years, trying to hone a thing together, so we just went in one day and made a demo tape.

I met Bob Rusch, who runs Cadence North Country, the magazine/record company, at a conference that I went to at Wesleyan University on the history of jazz. I talked to him there and mailed him a copy of the tape and he said let's do it. So that would have been 3 or 4 years into the time that I had moved to NY, it came out I think in 88. It didn't get much recognition or anything, we got a few really decent reviews in magazines here and there, in Wire, Ear, and Cadence magazine itself, but nothing really much came of it, except it was our first album.

It's kind of different from what I did after it in some ways, but I'll leave that up to the beholder. As of this time it exists on vinyl only, but Bob Rusch says he'll release it on CD when the vinyl is sold out, so it is still available through Cadence/North Country. I'm still happy with it, very happy, even though it's old and a little different from what I'm into now. I got some good response from musicians, I actually got a phone call from Anthony Braxton. He got turned onto it somehow, and he told me he listened to it every day for a whole summer.

That was nice. It opened a few doors, but it was a first album, it was not really promoted well. I at the time didn't really have much understanding about how the music industry worked, but since then I've undertaken to educate myself about it. I think a lot of people that get their first album out are excited, but then when nothing happens, they're like, what happened?

The jazz industry, per se, is a tricky one, any industry is, but the jazz industry is an especially tricky one. jazz musicians in particular don't usually try to educate themselves about it, and when things don't happen they can tend to fall into a lot of traps mentally, physically and spiritually.

If I were to talk about my recorded history, the second album I was on that was released isn't the second thing that I recorded. The second thing that I recorded became two albums with David S. Ware, Great Bliss Volume I and Great Bliss Volume 2, both on the Swedish label Silkheart, which had undertaken to record that aspect of the NY underground jazz scene which people know as David S. Ware, Charles Gayle, William Hooker, myself and Rob Brown.

But those records took like two years to be released after they were recorded, so the actual second album I'm on that was released is an album by the drummer in that group at the time, the drummer has since changed, but at the time it was Marc Edwards. He had been partners with David S. Ware for years, and had actually played with David in the Cecil Taylor Unit for a while in the 70s. Marc released the album on his own label, Alpha Phonics. It was called Black Queen, and playing on it was myself, Marc, Rob Brown, Fred Hopkins, and there was a woman poet who did some recitations of poems, Laverne Maxwell.

Then came the release of the Silkheart albums with David S. Ware, Great Bliss Volumes I & 2. Meanwhile, I had recorded a few things myself for Silkheart, the album Points, which Rob Brown is on again, and also William Parker and Whit Dickey. So that was recorded next, but that didn't come out, again, for another year and a half.

So in the meantime, I put my own album out, my first trio release, on my own label called Quinton Records, Quinton being my mother's maiden name. It's called Circular Temple and featured myself, Whit Dickey on drums and William Parker on bass.

After that came out, David S. Ware was approached by the DIW label, so we recorded Flight of l for them, and Columbia picked that up for an American release, so the first major label release I was on was that album, with the David S. Ware Quartet. Marc Edwards is the drummer on that, but Marc Edwards has since left David's group to pursue his own projects.

We were soon approached to do another album on DIW, David S. Ware's group that is, and that album is Third Ear Recitation, on which Whit Dickey replaced Marc Edwards. After that I joined the Roscoe Mitchell Ensemble, and there's a subsequent album called This Dance is for Steve McCall.

Since then there's a lot of things that have happened. My album Circular Temple on my own label is now going to be re-released on a major label. Henry Rollins heard it and got in touch with me, because he has started a reissue label with Rick Rubin, the record producer, known for doing projects such as Public Enemy, Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

So they're going to reissue that on their label, which is called Infinite Zero/American Recordings. And since then I've done a duo album with William Parker on a label from Austin, Texas called Rise, which is a punk rock label.

I have another trio album coming out soon on a label called Ectoplasm Records. Prism will be the name of that and by a weird twist of fate, the guy that runs that label is a man named Johan Kugelberg, who used to work for Matador records. But he has since been hired by Rick Rubin and now he's a senior executive at American Recordings. So Rick Rubin is picking up his label also, under American, so Ectoplasm will also be distributed under the umbrella of American Recordings.

So I will -- even though Ectoplasm's kind of being treated as an indie -- basically have 2 things floating on the same major label. I'm also in the process of signing with Henry Rollins' book company, 2.13.61. He will be putting out some records under this company, so I'm gonna do another album there also.

Also imminent is another release from the David S. Ware Quartet for DIW called Earthquation, and we are also preparing to record for the Knitting Factory's label in September, so there's a lot of recorded activity going on right now.

There is a certain kind of collaboration between 2 individuals, David S. Ware and myself and William Parker and myself, and that could bee seen as separate entities. David S. Ware, to me, is put in a bag with Charles Gayle a lot - they're looked at as being kind of the same. They both play tenor, and they both kinda come out of the same thing, but they're two obviously, very separate, different players, playing very separate, different music.

I've been playing with Ware now for about 6 years, and it's a relationship that I feet was made from the very second we started playing. It was established and it existed, that bond, and in a sense my piano style was the missing link in David's musical world at that point. I kind of am the orchestration, because David has a lot of bare ideas that are incredible, and I have a natural knack for orchestrating his ideas.

The David S. Ware Quartet has taken on the quality of an orchestral foundation and organization, and I see the possibility of a whole body of work over a period of years with them. Playing with David is definitely important to me, my style has been an important addition to his thing, and his playing has been important to mine. just the way be organizes has been an influence on me, because he's a very focused type of musical thinker. He has very specific ideas about how be wants something to go down. Usually I have 3 or 4 ideas of how it could happen and he has a general idea in mind. So I say, I could flesh it out this way or that way, and he's like, yeah, that way. It's a very fruitful collaboration for both of us.

William Parker and I just hook up, I don't even know what to say about it. There's just a telepathic communication between us, and even though William played with Cecil Taylor all those years, I think the communication between myself and William is much more intense than existed between Cecil and him. It's just a natural mode of communication that's there, it's one of those things that just happened. Obviously all the playing together over 9 years has honed it, but I think it was there from the beginning.

William is a singular type of figure in western music, to me he's one of the most profound musical people around. I do feel very, very strongly about the duo album I did with him. You can look at that album as a three part suite, with "Summertime" being thrown in to break up the suite, or you can actually look at "Summertime" as being part of the suite, which gives you a different outlook on the album. Each movement is telling a different story and is an individual entity.

I have no more words to say for William, except I've called him the god of residence before, and I'm looking forward to actually producing an album of William on solo bass at some point, because I feel that that is going to be a record that's going to turn a lot of heads when it happens.

Wit Dickey, who is the drummer in the trio, in my own quartet and in David S. Ware's quartet, is also a kind of very singular figure right now. I was looking for somebody who was influenced by drummers that I like, drummers like Steve McCall, Sunny Murray, Milford Graves.

I was looking for somebody who was idiomatically very focused. There are a lot of good drummers out there who could play this music and do a good job of it, but I think any product that is gonna subscribe to a certain sound, and be focused, is going to have to be by individuals who are focused in that style. You can always find a lot of good musicians that can do this or that, but sometimes it's better to find somebody who might not be able to function in another realm that well. Not to say that they wouldn't be able to do it, but there are certain drummers who are studio drummers, and they can do a lot of stuff, but they would never be able to really function on the records that you look back on as the recordings of an era that really defined a certain style, because the musicians on those recordings are gonna be the people that were there, period.

So it was very hard to find a drummer that was idiomatically totally focused and yet had a sound of his own - someone who didn't try to copy people, per se. Somebody who was idiomatically correct, but yet kind of a fresh phenomenon so people couldn't have any automatic associations and they would be forced to look at the thing as either whatever it is or in some fresh perspective.

That's what I feel I've found in Whit. After David S. Ware heard Circular Temple and was looking for a drummer, he decided to bring Whit into the group because he had similar feelings about him. He also didn't have a recording history, Circular Temple was the first album that he was on that was released, so when you have somebody who's not formed in the eyes of the media, it's a lot better situation because they don't have any associations for that person, and therefore no preconceptions. They can't just box someone off into a particular realm, like saying someone's been on Black Saint albums, so you already have a certain concept of them.

My plan for the future is basically to keep recording and to work a lot. I want to keep busy. An idle mind is not a good thing unless you're a certain age, and you can sit back and look back on your accomplishments. But I'm not that age yet, and I have a lot of things to do, a lot of music in my head to get out, a lot of people to meet and to share things with, and I just want to work and be busy.

I'm a workaholic, but I'm one that actually does spend a lot of time smelling the grass and the flowers, per se. I need a lot of time to keep my head clear and soak in the silence, which to me is kind of what music is about - to get your mind silenced so it can take in, which to me is the ultimate state. I like to think of my piano playing as meditative of sorts.

But as far as my career, it is kind of moving into this realm where I'm being recorded by and sponsored by the whole alternative rock business infrastructure. I find that very interesting. I don't really make distinctions between genre, good music is good music to me, and my plane has always kind of defied genre anyway, or defied classification. So to me that's actually great, because I'm operating in a new realm. There's more commercial possibility than playing in just a jazz situation, as far as the record companies that sponsor you, and there's a lot more people that will possibly get turned on to what I'm doing, because this is being presented to them as music, as opposed to as jazz, or as avant-garde jazz - all those meaningless words. So I like that. Henry Rollins has been really supportive. At my concerts, I look out into the audience and I see Thurston Moore there, and I've become very friendly with him. And people know of his association with drummer William Hooker, so there's this whole thing happening now between people in the alternative rock spectrum and people in my area of the music, as far as breaking down barriers and just dealing with music as music. It's like the whole idea that there's such a thing as alternative rock, which you could took at now as alternative music. I mean, is Johnny Cash alternative rock? But he's being sold in that market. You see him being played on college radio, so' it's kind of a redefinition of terms which is allowing for something of quality to be dealt with as something of quality. I don't want to make it seem gimmicky, because it's not meant to be a gimmicky thing. It's great, because what it is is people dealing with like-minded people that come from different places, dealing with good music as good music, period.

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