Matthew Shipp's New Orbit (Thirsty Ear)
by Andrew Johnson
PopMatters Music Critic
As "curator" of Thirsty Ear's The Blue Series, that label's jazz line, Matthew Shipp has wasted little time in releasing two of its four inaugural releases under his own name. Thankfully this latest one, Matthew Shipp's New Orbit, is in no way a vanity recording. Here pianist Shipp is working once again with bassist William Parker, a steady collaborator and fellow member of saxophonist David S. Ware's important bands throughout the 1990s. This time out pianist and bassist are joined by veteran trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and drummer Gerald Cleaver.
Clocking in at a little under forty minutes, one of the most attractive aspects of Matthew Shipp's New Orbit is its brevity and focus. The ten pieces offered here are, like much serious contemporary jazz these days, fairly abstract. Yet by keeping most of these pieces under the five minute mark, Shipp and company don't so much cut the music into bite size pieces for naïve listeners, as they make it fortuitously approachable because they don't attempt to strain listener's ears to the breaking point.
The other feature of this recording that provides a way into this music is the fact that four of the pieces revolve around a single theme set out on the first track, "New Orbit," and developed there by the entire band. On "Orbit 2" the theme is transformed into a restrained, meditative solo by Shipp. Then, on "Orbit 3," it is Parker's turn to stand alone with a shimmering, bowed bass take on the Orbit theme. And on the closing track, "Orbit 4," Shipp takes up the theme, again without accompaniment, playing it this time with a more assertive approach.
In between the Orbit pieces, Shipp's group creates a mix of settings, such as a duet with Shipp and Cleaver on "Paradox X" featuring Shipp on what sounds like a prepared piano ¾, a technique where a piano is manipulated, oftentimes by placing objects on the strings to create sounds not normally associated with a piano. With "Chi" it is Wadada Leo Smith's chance to really stretch out and show himself as easily the most aggressive player on this date by playing long snaking phrases that contrast with the tight, tense setting supplied by the balance of the band.
First-rate playing by some of avant-garde music's finest, Matthew Shipp's New Orbit isn't going to have you shaking your booty, but it will, if you let it, stimulate that part of our brains that responds to the organization of sound as a very high level of thinking or consciousness. This one is recommended.
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