Pianist Shipp champions the avant-garde
By Andrew Gilbert
Special to the Mercury News
After making more than a dozen remarkable albums during the '90s, pianist Matthew Shipp announced that he was retiring from recording.
Normally, a jazz pianist declining to document his work wouldn't cause much of a stir but Shipp is no ordinary musician. Ever since his first album, a self-produced 1990 duo session with alto saxophonist Rob Brown, "Circular Temple," caught the ear of punk-rock icon Henry Rollins, Shipp has been a leading force in bringing avant-garde jazz to a new audience.
While he often has been compared to Cecil Taylor, one of his early influences, Shipp has developed a far more nuanced style. Where Taylor's playing is marked by an almost unrelenting, super-charged stream of notes, Shipp's music is characterized by the ebb and flow of energy, with dense, dissonant passages resolving into rhapsodic chromatic washes.
He first gained widespread notice playing with powerhouse free-jazz tenor saxophonist David S. Ware in the late '80s, but it was his own albums, often for Rollins' 213 and Thirsty Ear labels,that won Shipp a following more likely to be seen at a Green Day gig than the Village Vanguard. So what led the pianist into his self-imposed recording exile?
What got me there was fatigue with coming up with concepts to make albums," says Shipp, 40, from his New York apartment ."When you make an album, it's like a kid. It has its own life. It's born into the world, it's packaged; it's sold; It's part of you. Theoretically, as a male you have enough sperm to make a baby every day, but who wants to do that? At a certain time there's enough kids in the family. That's the way I felt about albums at the time."
The hiatus turned out to be short-lived, and when Shipp returned to the studio last year, he documented a little-known side of his musical personality with "Pastoral Composure," a gorgeous quartet session, featuring trumpeter Roy Campbell, that makes fascinating connection between straight-ahead and avant-garde jazz. It also marked the debut of the Blue Series, the jazz imprint of Thirsty Ear that Rollins hired Shipp to run. Under Shipp's leadership, the imprint has quickly become an outlet for important young musicians such as pianist Craig Taborn and violinist Mat Maneri.
"What's so interesting to me is that, as of 10 years ago, I was kind of a laughingstock of the jazz world," Shipp says. "I mean, people admitted that I had some talent, but now here I am running a label and all kinds of people are calling me up to do things. If a musician wants have longevity and to be taken seriously in this industry, that can be done by selling a lot of records or producing a lot of good product -- I'm using the word 'product' now; I'm really a label person -- records that have vitality and really have something to say about what jazz is today."
The pianists own work certainly meets the second set of criteria. His latest release, "Matthew Shipp's New Orbit," is a meditative album that gleams with beautiful open spaces. Using a quartet featuring the brilliant trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, Shipp created an extended, inter-connected work that suggests infinite spaces filled with incandescent astral bodies.
"I was trying to create a jazz-ambient album." Shipp says. "Wide open spaces with jazz underpinnings, something that both is jazz and could also be seen as a modern Afro-American classical suite. Not classical in the sense that it's written-out classical music, but in the textures. I was definitely composing with Wadada in mind. There was a very specific thing I was going for, and he was the person to do it."
At the heart of Shipp's music is the powerful connection he's forged with bassist William Parker and, more recently, drummer Gerald Cleaver, the musicians he performs with Sunday through Tuesday at Bruno's as part of the Mission District club's ambitious new booking policy. Parker, in particular, has been Shipp's main collaborator since the pianist arrived in Now York in 1984.
Before he even moved to New York, Shipp had heard Parker on a Cecil Taylor album and knew he wanted to play with him, and sure enough they ended up living in the same neighborhood and quickly became compatriots. Despite the amazing musical bond they developed, the music they created found few takers in the mid-'80s, as the major clubs and labels were mostly interested in presenting mainstream musicians.
"I moved to New York at a very bizarre time," Shipp says. "it was hard for me to get any notoriety or notice of any kind because the neo-conservative thing was really kicking in at the time; so it was all Wynton Marsalis and his people. John Zorn was really hitting his high mark at the Knitting Factory, but it was just a real hard time for a young black non-mainstream player to get any notice."
While Shipp had trouble finding a niche in the jazz scene, his powerfully kinetic music won him fame in the world of punk rock, most importantly Rollins, the former singer in the seminal Los Angeles band Black Flag and now in the Rollins Band. ("The thing about Henry is, he's really in love with jazz," Shipp says. "It's not just that he's a punk rocker and this type of music has a lot of energy and noise. This is a guy who really talks about Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Ellington.")
Between performing with David S. Ware and getting Rollins' vocal support, Shipp cultivated an avid young following that came to his music with few of the preconceptions of traditional jazz audiences. It was a situation that allowed Shipp to flourish and his music to thrive while bucking the jazz scene's dominant trend.
"What's so interesting to me is that American music is supposed to be a melting pot," Shipp says. " 'Jazz purism' goes completely contrary to the music. It's really weird that the industry has created certain types of people that assume certain attitudes, walk certain ways, dress certain ways, talk certain ways. They'll acknowledge that Coltrane is great, but they're the complete antithesis of everything Coltrane stood for."
Having seized the mantle of jazz experimentation, Shipp is now concentrating on making his mark as a producer. He hasn't declared any new recording moratoriums, but he says he isn't planning on making many more albums. "I had an opportunity to do a couple of things I couldn't pass up," Shipp says. "But I don't want to end up having a hundred albums, like Anthony Braxton or David Murray. I don't see the need of that."
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