A FIRESIDE CHAT WITH MATTHEW SHIPP
By FRED JUNG
As a member of the David S. Ware Quartet, Matthew Shipp fastly became a buzz word. And soon after was making enough records to prove that beyond anyone's doubt. Last year, after Shipp had been recording more albums than David Murray, I spoke with Shipp and he told me that he was hanging it up for a time to gather his compositional and artistic focus. So when I heard that he had taken a position at the Thirsty Ear label to run their improvised music, Blue Series, I was stoked. Matt has great ideas and for him to head up the Blue Series is cotton candy for an avant junkie like myself. The following is Shipp's thoughts on everything from his decision to quit, come back, David S. Ware, William Parker, and boxing (which we both enjoy), unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
MATTHEW SHIPP: Well, I'm from Wilmington, Delaware. I was born December 7, 1960. I basically started playing piano at age five. I was inspired by church organists. I became really involved with jazz at the age of twelve. My parents were jazz enthusiasts. My mother was actually friends with jazz trumpet great Clifford Brown. So there was jazz around the house. I had been hearing jazz my whole life. I just jumped in at twelve and I got very serious and moved to New York in 1984 and I am now thirty-nine and I have had seventeen albums out.
FJ: So you never got an opportunity to meet Clifford Brown?
MATTHEW SHIPP: Oh, no, he died in 1956 and I was born in 1960. I never met him, even though some people think I am his reincarnation.
FJ: Back the truck, you have to explain this.
MATTHEW SHIPP: Actually, Fred, I've had a couple bizarre experiences with people that were very close to him that said to me, "It seems like I know you from somewhere." Once I even bumped into Max Roach and he kept saying, "It seems that we're familiar." They have actually never said that, but I studied with an ex-teacher of Clifford Brown once that kept telling me that it was almost like we were familiar.
FJ: Did you take formal lessons?
MATTHEW SHIPP: Yeah, yeah, I took the regular classical piano lessons.
FJ: Did you enjoy taking lessons?
MATTHEW SHIPP: I wanted to play, but I didn't want to practice. I wanted to be an athlete, you know, be rich and famous. I wanted to play, but I'd much rather read Sports Illustrated and watch sports on TV and go out and play games with my friends that were calling. Until twelve, I really decided that music was where I wanted to go.
FJ: Give me an example of some of the things you were listening to at the time.
MATTHEW SHIPP: At twelve, the jazz I was listening to most was probably Oscar Peterson. I know at that age, I was listening to Oscar Peterson a lot. And then I was just ransacking through whatever my parents had. I was, I mean, at the time, I was really into The Jackson 5 and Earth, Wind, & Fire and Stevie Wonder.
FJ: So clue me in how a person goes from listening to Oscar Peterson to the advanced music that you are playing now.
MATTHEW SHIPP: Well, I actually got into Coltrane really heavy around the age of thirteen. I would just to the library, read books, and make a list and buy stuff of people they talked about. That clicked right away. I kind of understood exactly where it was coming from.
FJ: Younger listeners seem to get John Coltrane's music, why do you feel that is?
MATTHEW SHIPP: The thing about Coltrane I think, Coltrane completely transcends what is jazz. I don't mean that as anything disparaging towards jazz, but I think that there is jazz that appeals to just jazz enthusiasts and then there is music, maybe with, I hate to use this word, but with more of a universal appeal for whatever reason that somehow transcends just being jazz and Coltrane is definitely one of those things. There is an energy in Coltrane. There is an energy, a radiance to it that is not unlike Jimmy Hendrix or something. There is something there that people can get to and the music somehow touches a realm of thought, of feeling, of emotion, of spirit that is something more than just jazz and that is why a lot of people, kind of, can get something out of it that might not be collecting Blue Note albums or whatever.
FJ: Let's touch on your work with David S. Ware.
MATTHEW SHIPP: The thing about David is he hired me for what I do. When we finally got together, he had heard of me through William Parker and Reggie Workman. He was looking to add a pianist and he wanted somebody that didn't sound like Cecil Taylor. We got together and his first comment at the end of the first night we played was that we had been acquainted. He hired me for my style. I basically have a knack for his way of composing and to orchestrate his ideas. I think I have learned, first of all, he has served some pretty unbelievable apprenticeships himself. He played with Cecil Taylor and then he played with Andrew Cyrille. He had done stuff with Bill Dixon. He's had a very extensive background. He's been able to pull pieces from all of that together. And obviously, he studied a long apprenticeship as a student with Sonny Rollins. Being close to him has made me feel like I have been close to those people because I've picked his brain for everything he's learned from them. I'm not going to say that it gives me more validity, but it makes me feel closer to the jazz tradition because he was close to those people and I was close to him. It gives me a sense from really coming from all of that.
FJ: You have had a long association with William Parker. How is his approach different from what other bassists are doing right now?
MATTHEW SHIPP: I don't want to separate sound from approach. I would say his concept, I think he is a modern day incarnation, if you would take every archetype of what a musician can be that was put out there in the '60s avant-garde and then how it would exist now in the twenty-first century with a figure that really embodies the spontaneous composer. He is a complete and utter walking synthesis of that archetype. I would just say all the energy that was put forth by other people, he embodies and has taken it to a new level and a new way and something that is meaningful to us now in the twenty-first century. I think his closeness to that tradition is what separates him from other people because he is like a walking embodiment of the spirit of it, despite the fact that he is of the day and not of the '60s. His music is fresh and not derivative in any way. He doesn't sound like any bass player in the '60s, but he does combine elements that you might hear in Jimmy Garrison and how he functioned in the Coltrane group, but maybe in a more expansive, organic way. He also embodies elements that Charlie Haden might have had in the Ornette group, but in a completely and utterly different way, elements that Gary Peacock might have had in the Albert Ayler group, but there weren't that many bassists. Cecil Taylor didn't have bassists in the '60s. If there is somebody being a complete and utter synthesis of all that and taking it to the next level, that's William Parker and I don't know of anybody else who deals with in that way. There's other great bass players. There's other bass players who can function very well in this music, but I think that he just has an intensity of being in the synthesis of all that. Nobody else has that intensity in exactly that way.
FJ: The last time that we spoke, you had gone into a self-imposed recording moratorium, what led to that decision?
MATTHEW SHIPP: Oh, too many albums in my bin. My recording career, since like the early '90s, I actually did have an album in the late '80s. Actually, that is getting ready to be re-issued on CD, but I've had like 17 recordings in like 8 or 9 years and I've been very thankful that record labels see me as a valuable musical voice and have elected to record me, but it has been so intense and so much, so fast, that I felt a need to hold, to stand back for a while. I still feel that need, but I got offered a chance to run a label, Thirsty Ear, that I recorded DNA decided to actually start a jazz label or jazz line, The Blue Series. It's a jazz line that Thirsty Ear is doing and they asked me to be the curator and they asked me to specifically start the series off. It was a chance for me to now start a new role as a producer. I'm starting the series off myself with an album. I'm out of semi-retirement.
FJ: Was the deal and opportunity something that you could not pass on?
MATTHEW SHIPP: Yeah, how often do you have a chance as a musician to become a producer on a label or run a series. I got offered the chance and I had to take it. In fact, if I do actually end up, and I'm never going to say again that I am going to retire, but if I do end up doing that, this is the best way to do it because I now am going to have a chance to produce albums of other musicians that I really respect and like. If the label works out, it's going to be an on going thing where I get a chance to produce and organize recordings now. I was specifically asked to start the series off myself and I do have loads of music sitting around. I have not stopped as a creative and performing entity. Those are things that I still do. I still practice and compose. I still perform. I will always do that. Just being offered this opportunity, I really just couldn't pass it up.
FJ: Let's talk about your first in The Blue Series, a quartet recording, Pastoral Composure (slated for release April 18, 2000).
MATTHEW SHIPP: The concept is the overall concept that has been discussed for the series, The Blue Series in general, which is basically taking players, forward looking players with an understanding of new music, jazz, avant-garde, whatever you want to call it and basically trying to go to another level or a new thing with it, in incorporating elements from straight-ahead jazz and trying to have it organic and not forced, just trying to incorporate other things and what you would exactly have in a "jazz avant-garde" album. This is not exactly what we're trying to do, but the model in a very abstract way that we had in mind was when ECM first started in the '70s. They had some really good jazz based recordings that were done with players that had an open, organic, sound. I'm thinking of the Dave Holland album, Conference of the Birds. It had Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton on it or some of the early Paul Bley albums or some of the early Gary Peacock albums. They have been very, very deep jazz based albums and there is the attempt to create a new form from the synthesis of all of that in a way that is pretentious or not organic. The whole idea is for it to be very organic, melodic, open, and yet recognizably jazz based at the same time.
FJ: Is this album a departure from your work in the past?
MATTHEW SHIPP: Yeah (laughing).
FJ: What prompted you to do a rendition of "Frere Jacques?"
MATTHEW SHIPP: Why (laughing)? You know, actually, Fred, a long time ago during a David Ware concert, he was playing a solo sax part and he accidentally played a riff from that song. I remember after the concert saying, "That's pretty funny. We should record that." He's like, "Oh, I don't know, maybe." And then during one of my solos at a David Ware concert, I started doing fragments of that. I just started incorporating "Frere Jacques" in the solo and the audience started laughing. And then I was doing a trio concert at the Knitting Factory and I just decided to do it one night. Everybody really came up to me saying, "Oh, that was so cool, doing 'Frere Jacques.'" So I was like why not record it. It seems to get a response every time. People just thought it was kind of funny. So I asked David if he wanted to record it. He didn't want to and so I did it on my own.
FJ: Was it nice to finally record with a trumpet (Roy Campbell)?
MATTHEW SHIPP: Oh yeah, and he has so much soul. He just feels the music very naturally. I have done one album with him before, Strata on Hatology. It was called my Horn Quartet album. It was very nice to play with trumpet. It is a completely different feel than playing with a sax player with a big sound. It gives you the chance to fool around with a lot of different vibes that I don't get a chance to. I can fool around with a quasi-Miles Davis vibe or whatever, fool around with a lot of different feels and vibes that I don't get to in groups with a sax player.
FJ: Piano players, almost as a rule, seem to stick to a selective format. Keith Jarrett has his solo and Standards Trio legacy and Bill Evans, his trio, and Horace Silver, his quintets, why did you choose the path less traveled by?
MATTHEW SHIPP: Right, right. I don't know if I thought that consciously at first, but obviously after a while, somehow on its own, it did become a recording strategy. It definitely became a recording strategy. I just feel there are many facets of my playing that blossom when I play in different formats, even though my music is my music. It's me and there are basic things about it that don't change, but I find the difference in timbre that different groups offer me does bring out different aspects of my playing and it's definitively, well, it turned out after a while, it became a recording strategy, even though it didn't start out that way.
FJ: Thirsty Ear allows your music to have a much higher profiled presence. You have recorded extensively for the Hatology label, but they are not readily available in record stores. You are not going to run into your local Tower Records location in Las Vegas and find any of those Hatology releases.
MATTHEW SHIPP: Right, yeah, yeah. I have had a great relationship with them. What I like about Thirsty Ear and the people there, Peter, who runs the label, Laurie, who is the publicist, and Michelle, she does the radio promotion, there has been so much enthusiasm from them about me and that is really what an artist asks from a label, that they are actually enthusiastic. They've just generated so much enthusiasm. And also Hatology, Werner Uehlinger at Hat Art, he's been, it's been a blessing working with him. I've been very lucky with both my European label, Hat Art and my American label, Thirsty Ear, that they have really gone to great lengths to understand what makes me work and tick as a human being. They have been very enthusiastic and they have just been there for me and I have been very blessed to have working relationships with labels like that.
FJ: The future for The Blue Series?
MATTHEW SHIPP: Well, there is three others this year. A William Parker Trio album that will have Hamid Drake on drums and then the violinist Mat Maneri will be releasing a quartet album with William Parker on bass and Craig Taborn on piano. Craig Taborn will be releasing a trio album. Craig Taborn is the pianist from the James Carter band.
FJ: Mat is a phenomenal violinist, are we seeing a resurgence?
MATTHEW SHIPP: I think he will. I'll say that. People are just starting to get a sense of him and still people think of him as a sideman and not as a leader. I definitely think that he's going to make a huge impact because he's one of the greatest improvisers that I know. I can't really speak for the violin in general. Regina Carter, the female violinist, is a really good player. She's in a different aspect of the music. She doesn't play this type of music, but she seems to be generating some heat. I actually don't know her work. I know her personally, but I have never heard her work. I think the instrument has a lot of appeal to it.
FJ: Mat's father, Joe Maneri, is no slouch.
MATTHEW SHIPP: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. I know Joe. Mat's father is a personal friend of mine.
FJ: Tour plans?
MATTHEW SHIPP: I have a lot of stuff going on with David Ware. I have some tours with Roscoe Mitchell. I have some duo tours coming up with William Parker. I have the String Trio tours with my String Trio. I'm just trying to get this quartet from Pastoral Composure as a touring element. It definitely will be some East Coast stuff. I'm just getting that together right now.
FJ: David has another album on tap for Columbia.
MATTHEW SHIPP: We have an album coming out with the Ware Quartet, a second Sony album coming out May 16.
FJ: What can we expect there?
MATTHEW SHIPP: That is kind of a straight-ahead jazz album. I think what really is occurring is people from our spectrum of the music can bring a whole freshness and a different stream of sound into the straight-ahead format and really make it vibrant and alive.
FJ: I know you are an avid boxing enthusiast. Did you watch the De La Hoya vs. Trindad fight?
MATTHEW SHIPP: Yeah, I was disgusted by it, completely disgusted. Here is two fighters that are supposedly the best in the world and what a waste that it was like a sparing match. De La Hoya was making 20 some odd million dollars and he decides to sprint. I wasn't impressed about Trindad either. It was completely disgusting.
FJ: There sure is a lot of ballyhoo and hubbub about Tyson in England.
MATTHEW SHIPP: It's pretty funny. I'm completely not a Mike Tyson fan. The whole is pretty funny. I actually think it is pretty disgusting that they have a rule that they don't allow felons into the country and they let him in.
FJ: Did you see it coming that Lennox Lewis would have the heavyweight title?
MATTHEW SHIPP: Yeah, Holyfield was getting old. I actually think that if the light-heavyweight champ Roy Jones would fight him, Roy would destroy him. I'm a Roy Jones fanatic. I just have never seen anybody like him. He's a complete, some old time boxing fans, he disturbs because they don't really like the way he goes about it, but, hey, he gets the job done. Having decimated three weight classes and pretty much every second of his boxing career, he's controlled it. I can count on my hands the amount of rounds that he has lost in his career.
FJ: Pound for pound the best fighter in the world?
MATTHEW SHIPP: Yeah.
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