Matthew Shipp

Matthew Shipp in the New York Times

by Adam Shatz, the New York Times

Two years ago, at the age of 38, the jazz pianist Matthew Shipp announced that he was retiring from the studio. In interviews, Mr. Shipp described his decision as if it were one of those "exemplary renunciations of a vocation" that Susan Sontag talks about in her 1967 essay "The Aesthetics of Silence." In case you didn't see the parallels with Rimbaud's repudiation of poetry and Glenn Gould's exit from the stage, Mr. Shipp suggested them for you.

Meanwhile, curiously, he appeared to be busier than ever. He was playing -- and, yes, making records -- with the David S. Ware Quartet, the violinist Matt Maneri and the saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell. Displaying entrepreneurial gifts that nearly matched his artistic ones, he began to promote the gnarled free jazz of his peers by creating the Blue Series for his label, Thirsty Ear Records. Amid all this activity, it was hard not to take a bemused view of his retirement, especially when Mr. Shipp broke his vow last year and recorded a new album, "Pastoral Composure."

Such doubts, however, have been dispelled by Mr. Shipp's splendid new recording, "New Orbit" (THI 57095.2). It turns out that his self-imposed exile from the studio was something more than a masterly stroke of public relations. The lugubrious mannerisms that fattened his music around the edges are gone. Gone, too, is the avant-gardist's suspicion of beauty, the piling on of dissonances for their own sake. The result is his best record since the 1996 release "String Trio," a lean, urgent piece of work that holds together Satie's meticulous minimalism and Coltrane's chaotic maximalism in a taut, delicate balance.

A true American eccentric, Mr. Shipp takes a little getting used to. In contrast to most jazz, his style of improvising is more circular than linear, involving a great deal of repetition and producing a rapt sense of time-in-suspension, instead of the forward motion generated by traditional swing. Even when the pace picks up, his music tends to head down a decidedly bleak path -- this is mope jazz, if there is such a thing. In his less inspired moments, Mr. Shipp has given the impression of a man trapped, like one of Samuel Beckett's anti-heroes, in a forbidding maze of his own making. At his best, he gets you to hear music in a different way: you're in the maze with him, sure enough, but there's no place you'd rather be.

From the first dozen or so notes -- a gorgeous, limpid motif for solo piano -- "New Orbit" comes across as a work of ear-cleansing simplicity, an authoritative study of music's elementary particles. The sidemen are the bassist William Parker, Mr. Shipp's collaborator for more than a decade, the drummer Gerald Cleaver, and the trumpeter Leo Smith, best known for his work with Anthony Braxton. It's especially exciting to hear Mr. Smith, who seldom records these days. He has a big, bright sound: explosive in fast pieces, richly plangent in slower ones.

Each of the 10 tracks on "New Orbit" contributes, subtly but surely, to the emotional scaffolding of the work as a whole; in only four of them do we hear the full quartet. On " Paradox X," for example, Mr. Shipp plucks the strings of his piano, accompanied by Mr. Cleaver, who makes evocative use of his cymbals. The effect is otherworldly and enchanting, somewhere between John Cage's percussive pieces for prepared piano and a Baroque harpsichord. On "Paradox Y," Mr. Parker attacks the double bass with his bow, rendering a series of overtones, now baleful, now screeching, punctuated by the sputtering of Mr. Smith's trumpet. (This startling piece is oddly reminiscent of Lou Reed's unyielding experiment in feedback, "Metal Machine Music.")

Although Mr. Shipp arrived at the studio with the motif that runs through "New Orbit" like an idée fixe, most of the music was improvised on the spot. Not that one would guess: clocking in at less than 40 minutes and ideally heard in a single sitting, "New Orbit" has the formal coherence of a suite. Where there was once a disturbing sense of agitation at the center of his music, there is now a kind of transcendent calm. "New Orbit" ends with Mr. Shipp and Mr. Parker playing a brief reprise of the opening motif. As it dies away, you have the sense that a young musician is being reborn.

< back^ home ^

all contents © 2000-2013 Matthew Shipp