Jay DeFoore, Daily Texan Staff
Like every jazz artist before him, Matthew Shipp has searched long and hard for a unique voice. This endless pursuit has taken him beyond other avant-garde jazz pianists, not to mention the more popular neo-traditionalists. But Shipp is the kind of musician that sees the benefit in sacrificing popularity for artistic autonomy.
Shipp's style is analogous to Texas weather: hot and scorching one minute, cool and morose, the next. Combining thunderous rolls, percussive vamps, kinetic tinkering and repeating phrase fragments, Shipp builds swirling mood pieces fraught with a life of their own.
Last year Shipp released By The Law of Music, a suite composed for his string trio. Flanked on either side by his longtime musical partner on bass William Parker and viollinisi Mat Maneri, the trio twist and turn through 12 originals and top it off with a skewed take on Duke Ellington's "Solitiude." On Friday, the trio brings their unique strand of improvisational jazz to Austin's First Unitarian Universalist Church.
"I was a always kind of a rebel from the beginning," Shipp said. "So I would say my playing is home-made."
Growing up in Wilmington, Del., Shipp did have some classical training but instead of getting locked into one mode of playing, the musician cut things off before they got too far. "I was taking things from here and there and putting them together on my own," Shipp said.
Much like the starry-eyed characters in John Dos Passos' "Manhattan Transfer" Shipp soon moved to New York City to get to the center of things.
"New York is where most of the opportunities,are," Shipp admits. "Most of the ways to get to the media and record companies seem to be around here."
When asked if the city plays a role in his compositions, Shipp answers both yes and no.
Strangely, much of Shipp's success has come from outside the New York jazz scene. Although he enjoys a loyal fan base in the city, a large percentage of Shipp's audience comes from unlikely places, namely college radio and the experimental rock scene.
At first glance, a free-jazz pianist and a punk record-label seem like strange bedfellows, but come together they did. But long before punk icon Henry Rollins signed Shipp to his 2.13.61 record label, a small Austin indie label signed Shipp first. Beating the ex-Black Flag singer to the punch was Austin's Craig Koon, a Sound Exchange employee and founder of Rise Records. So how does the owner of an indie label from Texas, who previously specialized in local punk and hardcore acts, come to sign a free-jazz artist? According to Shipp, the process was quite simple.
"Craig just called me out of the blue. I could tell he was very sincere," Shipp said. "We talked about music, and I could tell his heart was in the right place ... so I went with it."
The union turned out to be more than modestly successful, with both record pressings on Rise selling out. Eventually, Rollins' label reissued the album and sold even more copies.
Surprisingly, the untrained ears of the average college-aged music fan prove to be quite astute, which comes as no surprise to Shipp.
"I don't think there's a straight line to anything. Somebody hears something and they react to it," Shipp said. 'I've had reviews in fanzines from people where the first line in their review is, 'I don't know anything about jazz, but I like this album for this reason ...' They outline it, and their perception about what's going on is a lot more accurate than somebody who knows every Coltrane album."
According to Shipp, somebody is either ready for it or they're not... "Any jazz afidonado that would look down upon my audience or me for reaching people to whom jazz is not their thing is utter elitism, and has nothing to do with musical intelligence, period."
Shipp calls his sound idiosyncratic, and while he admits having a burning desire to do something different, he insists his sound came about organically.
"There's this torch of courage inside of everyone, but we're all too brainwashed from the time we're kids to really touch that center of encourage," Shipp said. "I think my style comes from a desire to stand out, and from being lucky enough to run into people along the path that see something there and make sure I stay on my path."
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