Matthew Shipp

Gary Mullinax, Staff reporter

Pianist Matthew Shipp -- now a rising jazz musician -- with a lead review from Rolling Stone just added to his clippings -- sold records at Classics Delaware when he lived in Wilmington during the early 1980s.

That's one gig he couldn't wait to get out of.

It didn't take owner Will Prost long to realize Shipp's mind was on another part of the music business.

"He pulled me aside one day and told me I didn't want to work in a record store," says Shipp from the New York City apartment where he lives with his wife, Delia. "He said what I wanted to do was go home and practice, that I just wasn't cut out for retail record sales. But he did give me a lifetime discount."

Shipp practiced his way right out of Wilmington and into the new England Conservatory of Music in 1982. By 1984 he was living in New York and beginning his career performing and recording free jazz -- the kind pioneered by Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and the latter-day John Coltrane. The kind that sometimes sounds like noise and chaos to the uninitiated.

The audience for free jazz has never been huge, but at least Shipp doesn't have to sell parts of his -- and his parents' -- record and book collection on the street to pay the rent. He did that in his early days on the Lower East Side, and selling records wasn't any better the second time around. But he persevered. Today, he records and performs regularly - mostly in New York, often in other American cities, five or six times a year in Europe. "The calendar is starting to fill in -- into 1996," he says of his schedule. In the field of free jazz, Shipp stands toward the very top.

Still, even his Mom can't say she's in love with the avant-garde music her son has embraced.

"I listen to it because I want to understand it," says Gertrude Shipp. And does she? "Kind of."

That's more than she can say for her friends. "I notice when I have company and put it on, they talk and don't really listen." But she's happy with Matt's career. "He's being creative. He's happy with what he does and does it well."

Shipp released a number of recordings under his name. The Matthew Shipp Trio's "Circular Temple" album came out in 1992 and was recently re-released. "Critical Mass" by the Matthew Shipp Quartet just came out.

Pulse magazine called "Circular temple" "cubism in motion" and found Shipp "combining influences from Saint-Saens to Cecil Taylor into a unique and fascinating voice."

Good reviews have been the norm for Shipp, but a rave in the mass-market Rolling Stone was a surprise. "I would say that the Rolling Stone review turned some heads." Shipp says. "For about one second, we became not underground."

Shipp, 34, grew up in Wilmington on Richard's Alley near Ursuline Academy. He went to St. Edmund's Academy north of Wilmington, to Sanford School in Hockessin and then to the University of Delaware for two years. But despite his fondness for such high-brow writers as Karl Jung, he wasn't much interested in school if it wasn't teaching him music.

"When he went to the University of Delaware, he spent most of his time practicing," says Scott Davidson, a Wilmington friend of Shipp's and a fellow musician who turned Shipp onto Middle Eastern music. "He used to plan five or six hours a day just for listening to the jazz greats. I'm not surprised he succeeded."

Shipp, whose father, Matthew, is a retired Wilmington police captain, began his interest in jazz at age 12. Soon he was heading to the Wilmington library to check out books about Coltrane and the history of jazz and buying jazz records at the old Wilmington Dry Goods on Market Street. He read a biography of Coltrane when he was 14.

"I was just hit over the head with his quest to find mysticism in music, and I was a very religious kid anyway," Shipp says. "To me that's just what music is."

But he concentrated on fundamentals when he started taking lessons from Wilmington's Boysie Lowery, the noted jazz teacher whose students have included Clifford Brown and Ernie Watts. Lowery was a be-bop guy, he didn't venture into the really wild stuff.

"First, he dwelled on the integrity of what your rhythmic ideas are, " says Ship, who also studied classical music with a private teacher. "That has to be together for you to communicate. The rhythm must be solid. And I got from him a way of structuring things from simple building blocks I your solos. He did not emphasize complexity but clarity. A lot of jazz people study to learn hip riffs. He was just not into that."

But on his own, Shipp was listening to the wild playing of Coltrane and other free jazz musicians -- when he wasn't listening to Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and other rockers.

"We'd go to a Led Zeppelin concert, but when we were home I'd play Coltrane and that stuff for my friends."

In fact, free jazz is attracting more rock fans than ever. Alternative "noise" groups like sonic Youth identify with Shipp and such frequent band mates as David S. Ware and Roscoe Mitchell. Alternative rocker Henry Rollins re-released "Circular Temple" on his Infinite Zero label and released the new "Critical Mass" on his 213CD label.

"With the whole indy rock label thing, we've been covered a lot in fanzines [small circulation magazines devoted to alternative rock and culture], so young people are finding out about us," Shipp says. "I was just reading a fanzine sent from Australia by some guy 19 years old who seemed to have a real grasp of the whole situation."

Shipp himself cites Hendrix as a major influence "He has a resonance we go for, a circular way of using rhythms in waves and of taking the blues and going to more spatial elements with that."

Still, in jazz the albums with the highest sales figures come from light-jazz players and from young neo-traditionalists like Wynton Marsalis, who preserves the relatively accessible jazz styles of the '40s and '50s with a missionary zeal.

That makes Shipp skeptical.

"There are some very talented players in that school, but it's not my calling. I actually have a real distaste for Wynton Marsalis. He's tried to define jazz, and jazz can't be defined. I think he's a fascist, to be quite honest. He stifles jazz more than he helps. If jazz is not ongoing, it's going to die. It's like trying to preserve the cells of your body when it was 8 years old."

So Matthew Shipp keeps moving forward, into areas where many fear to follow. It might not make him a millionaire, but he wont' have to work behind a record-store counter anymore.

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