Found In Space
By Jeff Jackson, Sonic Net.com
Retirement certainly has been good for Matthew Shipp's creativity. Since he announced a hiatus from recording in 1998, the New York City pianist has produced two of the best and most groundbreaking albums of his already impressive career.
Last year saw the release of Pastoral Composure, the inaugural release of The Blue Series, a label he curates and produces through Thirsty Ear. On it Shipp channeled his free jazz energies through traditional forms, fusing inventive playing with recognizable blues, bop and swing progressions. A dazzling high wire act, it simultaneously flouted and deepened jazz conventions.
Now comes Matthew Shipp's New Orbit, which goes even further. The tip-off is the title, indicating a work that revolves outside his previous music — and listeners' expectations. The album doesn't fit any preexisting category as much as it strives to create its own. "Chamber free jazz"? "Abstract blues suite"? Whatever you want to call it, it works.
As on Pastoral Composure, Shipp uses a quartet of piano, bass, drum and trumpet, but to completely different effect. This band is more ruminative, gently deploying sound in an almost painterly way. While often restrained, the foursome can, when called on, work up the frenzy of an entire orchestra, with tight, controlled improvisations that recall both vintage Art Ensemble of Chicago and Duke Ellington, while sounding like neither.
New Orbit opens and closes with a prayerful piano refrain, a few instantly recognizable notes forming a motif that is subtly woven throughout the album. These few searching, yearning notes contain the echoes of the music the album explores — from blues to classical to the spiritual and meditative work of John Coltrane.
On "New Orbit", trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith gracefully soars over Shipp's simple piano patterns, conjuring up a gorgeous melody anchored by the rumbling rhythms of bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver. The slow-burning "Syntax" showcases Smith's stabbing bursts of lyricism, while "Orbit 2" is all Shipp, a shimmering cluster of perfectly chosen notes. There's even a bowed-bass solo from William Parker, "Orbit 3", that's as bracing as it is beautiful. Like light through a prism, the individual parts of the album refract each other, fitting together and coming apart in unexpected ways. At the center is "U Feature," the group cutting loose and Smith unfurling a spiraling solo over a sea of roiling beats.
While the edges here are often intentionally blurred, there are moments (such as the middle of "Paradox X") where things stray too far out of focus. Still, these are minor missteps in an otherwise major work. Clocking in at 39 minutes, Matthew Shipp's new music is concise in its execution and expansive in its ambitions. And for those interested in jazz's development, it's essential listening.
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