Matthew Shipp Quartet
New Orbit (Thirsty Ear)
review by Derek Taylor, One Final Note
Matthew Shipp and Thirsty Ear have brought back something that was largely missing in creative improvised music through their Blue Series jazz line - the concept of the programmatic album as a viable medium of expression. So much of today's music is culled from live performances. The low cost and portability of high quality recording equipment makes it possible for virtually every gig to be taped and archived. Add to this commercial realities coupled with the high cash outlays often necessary for studio time and the end result is a preponderance of concert recordings serving as material for discs.
Granted, most live performances are inherently programmatic in nature, but not in the same way as a preplanned studio album. Recordings like Coltrane's A Love Supreme and Dolphy's Out To Lunch derive their canonical status not only from the music they contain, but also from the overall feel that the sequencing of the compositions creates. It's this unwritten continuity that causes rabid fans of a particular record to fume in anger when the session it was originally culled from is carved up or resequenced into recorded order with alternate takes spliced in to fit into the completist format of a box set.
Shipp and Thirsty Ear have recognized and acted upon these concerns with the Blue Series, paring disc lengths down to near LP durations and paying particularly close attention to the programmatic properties of the albums they're releasing. Each one, from Shipp's inaugural Pastoral Composure to this most recent offering, has the feel of a cohesive suite, not just a series of tracks tied together under an arbitrary name. Running through the core of the date among the series of "Orbit" pieces is a haunting modal theme that recalls the compositional touch of Keith Jarrett in its somber immediacy. Like all highly memorable motifs it's one that will stick in the crevices of attending ears long after the disc has ceased spinning. Shipp has again chosen his comrades well. William Parker and Gerald Cleaver, integral facets of the leader's first Blue Series effort, return and adapt themselves well to the chamber music atmosphere of the leader's charts. However, Wadada Leo Smith is the real focal point of the ensemble pieces. His wide-open tone and ingenius command of space propel the quartet through capaciously articulated phrasings. Shipp's lines are in turn serious without being overly weighty. On "Paradox X" preparations to piano create an almost celeste-like tone from Shipp's keys that tangles beautifully with the tympani rumble of Cleaver's mallets. The "Orbit" theme is explored in a variety of settings beginning with complete quartet on the opening title track and moving to solo (Shipp and Parker) and duet (Shipp/Parker) deconstructions on later versions. Parker's smoldering arco exploration on "Orbit 3" is particularly arresting in the harmonic implications that are uncovered in the meeting between resinous bow and metallic strings.
Shipp makes the claim that this disc is the culmination of 10 years and 17 recordings, "the album I've always wanted to make," in his own words. This may seem like a bold statement geared toward self-promotion on the surface, but the music in many ways bears out Shipp's assertion. There's a programmatic cohesion and clarity of purpose that ties all ten tracks together into a discrete, deeply satisfying unit. Listening to the album in one sitting leaves the sense of a journey begun and completed, a feeling that is often absent from creative improvised music communicated within the parameters of the compact disc.
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