Interview by Dave Reitzes (May 1999)
If this decade isn't looked back upon as the Roaring Nineties, it won't be Matthew Shipp's fault. For all the heart-stopping architectonics of Shipp's music, however, its solid melodic foundation guarantees that the pianist's impact will be felt long after the 20th century is history.
The past decade has seen Shipp sculpt a body of work that includes his continuing and highly rewarding contributions to the David S. Ware Quartet, a stint with Roscoe Mitchell's Note Factory, and over thirty albums in an impressive variety of solo, duo, trio and quartet formats, with such collaborators as guitarist Joe Morris, saxophonists Roy Campbell and Rob Brown, trumpeter Roy Campbell, bassist William Parker, violinist Matt Maneri, and drummers Whit Dickey and Susie Ibarra.
His latest album, DNA (on Thirsty Ear), is Shipp's fifteenth album as a leader. A duo recording with William Parker, DNA is full of introspective and abstract soundscapes with roots in Monk and Powell, and branches reaching out to American traditional music and spirituals, as in an impassioned version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" and the eloquent, straightforward reading of "Amazing Grace" that brings the album to a close.
We had a chance to talk to Matt just as he was getting ready for the Ware Quartet's first performance with new drummer Guillermo Brown, opening for Sonic Youth at New York City's Roseland.
PSF: I don't know where to start, so why not start with the here and now? You're not recording for a while.
Yeah, I'm doing this duo album with William on Thirsty Ear, then I'm going on a sabbatical from recording, the recording process. But I do have some imports that have already been recorded, that'll be straggling into the country over the next couple years on hatArt. But I have a lot of albums out and it's time to take a rest.
PSF: Do you know how long that's going to last? Is it just going to be when you feel like it?
Right. You know, actually, to be quite honest, DNA, which is the duo album we have on Thirsty Ear, is number fifteen of my own albums --
PSF: As a leader.
Right, and that's in a very short period of time, in a seven-year period. And to me it's kind of capping off the primary body of work. So I'm not really feeling the urge to record at (laughs) to be honest.
PSF: The line between your work as a leader and a sideman kind of blurs sometimes. I think you're somebody who probably, consciously, doesn't stay off to the side too much.
Well, pretty much everything I do, except for Roscoe Mitchell, I kind of cross the line into a collaborator. My own things I'm definitely the leader. With David Ware I'm co-orchestrator (laughs). I've developed a role for myself in that group. I mean, he's the leader but I'm definitely organically a huge part of the whole concept of the quartet. So I think I kind of cross the line. I'm not strictly a sideman; I'm a co -- (shrugs) You could choose to see it many ways.
PSF: Well, it shows. I was listening to Go See the World [David S. Ware Quartet] today and I was thinking that it's hard to imagine the Quartet with a different piano player.
Yeah, I think I've a developed a role for my particular style in that group. We think of it as a piece. There's nobody else who would fit in that role exactly. And that's a bit of an organic marriage between his style as a composer and my actual style as a pianist, accompanist, musical thinker, musical landscape developer, there's a natural organic marriage between David and myself. And then if you look at the rhythm section, there's an organic marriage between William Parker and myself. Therefore that group has grown over the years to be like an organic totality that all our personalities contribute to largely.
PSF: You had Whit Dickey for a while, then you had Susie [Ibarra] for a little while and now this new guy, Guillermo . . .
PSF: He's only been with you, I'm guessing, about a month or so? Two months?
Ah, no -- two days.
PSF: Oh! Well.
(Laughs) We've rehearsed the last two days.
PSF: How's that working out so far?
He's a very good drummer. He's different. He's young; he's 22. Therefore, without a lot of baggage. (Grins) He's definitely going to work.
PSF: What does that do when you have a different player -- player in the sense of a team. What happens when that fourth corner changes?
Well, I would say in that particular group, the sonic landscape, the concept of the rhythm section in that group is one that has been developed over a decade, and it's pretty solid. The actual landscape is generated from myself and William, so the drummer is an added appendage. I mean, a lot of people think of drummers as the foundation of the rhythm section. I would actually say in this group that's not the case. Even though David feeds off a drummer. But the actual sonic landscape is generated by William and myself, so a drummer more or less has to fit into that, because that's already a developed concept. Usually a drummer's style does kind of dictate how we interact with him, but the basic concept of the rhythm section is already established. Elvin Jones could come into the group and he would have to adjust to us.
PSF: Well, number one, you and David and William all have strong personalities as musicians . . .
In and of ourselves.
PSF: Right. And then you put the three of you together, and it's like -- it's one times two times three . . .
Right, it's multiplying, not adding (laughs).
PSF: So you'd have to be a dynamo drummer just to stay afloat. I don't mean just in terms of sheer power; you'd have to be pretty quick mentally and pretty flexible to fit in. And then a little power doesn't hurt, too.
He definitely -- he has it. He brings something different. All the drummers that have been with the Ware group have added something very good to the group, from Mark Edwards to Whit Dickey to Susie Ibarra. He has something different and it should be interesting to see how it grows. I can't predict exactly where it's going to go.
PSF: You're someone whose music is not easy to describe. In terms of nailing it, saying, "Here's what it is," I have more trouble with yours (laughs) than anyone else's. Critics seem to describe your music as being about challenge or about struggle. How do you feel about that?
About what? (Laughs)
PSF: About having people either shrugging, going, "I don't know what it is," or else describing it in terms that are sort of antagonistic. Does that strike you as an insult?
No, because I think somebody's trying to do the best they can to describe it. I like people not being able to be pigeon-holed. I feel I bring a lot to the table as far as what I've been influenced by and what I like. I'm obviously in the jazz avant-garde idiom and one thing that's always struck me about the genius of that idiom is that it can kind of encompass everything, theoretically. If you listen to Albert Ayler, you hear folk songs, you hear elements of traditional jazz on some of his earlier albums, you hear folk melodies, you hear spirituals. If you listen to Coltrane you'll hear Indian music, African music, along with his obvious underpinnings in jazz. If you listen to Cecil Taylor you'll hear some classical things. So the genius of this idiom is that you can bring anything into it. I mean, that's any music, really, when you get down to it. If you listen to Stevie Wonder, he brings elements of Latin music, he performs Bob Dylan songs. But the jazz avant-garde seems like you can incorporate anything into it, like a melting pot, within your own style. I personally have grown up listening to a lot of different things and have been influenced by a lot of different things. I approach the music as music, not as the various genres. So I'm not trying to make a music that's a mixture of this or that, but a lot of this or that is in it.
PSF: It just comes out.
Naturally. So that elements of the different things that are part of me are synthesizing naturally. Therefore, for some people it might be harder to pigeonhole. I mean, when you get down to it, I obviously come out of a certain thing. I definitely come out of the jazz avant-garde tradition and therefore the jazz piano tradition, but there's a lot of things going on that really meant a lot to me, be it Bud Powell or Jimi Hendrix, Anton Webern, Andrew Hill. So there's a lot of people I like and I've just soaked it all in.
PSF: Sometimes you'll play something where maybe more jazz will come out -- well, it's wrong to even say that, but you know what I mean -- some kind of a jazz style comes out more in one piece where maybe in another piece you hear more of a classical influence. You must be sick of being compared to Cecil Taylor.
PSF: And I wouldn't compare the two of you.
I don't think I sound anything like him. But I understand that, because if you mention that idiom, you almost have to mention that.
PSF: Right, just in terms of you being two avant-garde jazz piano players. The average jazz listener who's not too familiar with the avant-garde side of it might hear it that way.
Some people listen very superficially. They get out of it that there's a lot of density and dissonance. If they get that, then they say, you know, you're out of Cecil Taylor.
PSF: Yes, you're coming out of some of the same traditions, but clearly --
A different vector.
PSF: I don't know why I feel I'm on more solid ground when I listen to Cecil.
If you want to describe me as a turn of the century American pianist, I play turn of the century American piano music. (Laughs)
PSF: And I'm not somebody who worries about genre; I just can't think of another person whose music uproots me the way yours does. You know that old quote from Andre Previn, where he says, Stan Kenton makes a big motion, his band plays something, and every arranger in the house nods their head and says, "Yes, that's how it's done." But then Duke Ellington raises a finger, two horns play something, and Previn says, "I don't know what it is."
PSF: There's all this other stuff where I feel I'm on solid ground, but then with you --
It's a mystery.
PSF: Even with your music with Ware, I feel I'm on more familiar territory than your solo work. Do you feel there's a big leap between your music and the music you play with him?
Oh, it's different worlds.
PSF: Because I feel that way.
No, they're two different worlds altogether. In my relating to him, it's creating a different universe than when I put my own name as a leader on it, definitely. They're two different universes with different logics. Purposely so.
PSF: Though, obviously, it's not something where you sit and you think about, "I'm going to do it this way."
No, but I think a burly horn that is that capacious makes the musical landscape a certain thing. And even within the context of the quartet, when he stops playing and the trio is doing something, what you're doing as a trio has to index what he had done before. So it's different when you start with a whole different premise, without that burly tenor, it's a whole different premise. The way he writes is different. The way I accompany him is different. The way I use a horn or a violin in the context of my own group is completely different -- the aims and the means. But related.
PSF: As the writer or the so-called journalist, it's my job to characterize what the difference is, but I'm going to ask you what you think the difference is.
It's hard for me to precisely define those things, but I would say that his group is music coming out of the tenor tradition. There's that definite post-Sonny Rollins, post-Albert Ayler, post-Coltrane thing. And it's a quartet, coming out of a classic quartet concept. Whereas, I think I'm much more concerned with . . . how can I put this? (Laughs) I'm just coming from a different space. I'm a different generation. I'm trying to think of the exact term to say where I'm coming from, and it's not really . . .
PSF: It's almost like doing psychotherapy on yourself to try to figure it out.
Yeah, but I'm good at that. (Laughs)
PSF: Good. (Laughs)
The term is still not coming to me. I mean, he's from a jazz generation. I'm a jazz musician, but the way I think about putting albums out or the way I think about myself as an artist even is more comparable to David Bowie than Sonny Rollins. Post-modern is not the word; in fact, it's definitely not the word. I can't really think of a term. I guess what it comes down to is, my music is different: the way I write, the way I compose, the way I deal with dynamics, the way I organize the other players in my group is just different.
PSF: There's a different sense of structure, but (laughs) don't ask me to describe it.
Well, I think what that comes down to is in his groups, the basic emphasis is accompaniment for him. It's a quartet in that sense, where even though there's a lot of detail going on in the rhythm section that has its own interest, on another level it is more accompaniment -- on another level -- and he's the leader. And I kind of de-emphasize that in my own groups, unless it's a solo or a duo. I orchestrate differently. And I don't mean this as a put-down, but on my album Strata (hatArt), I really try to do the piano as a coloristic device in an Ellingtonian sense, and in his groups I don't think he would take a back job like that. I don't mean that in a pejorative sense, I'm just saying that one group is organized along the lines of that type of classic jazz quartet and the other is organized along the lines of a portrait or a novel.
PSF: With Strata, you give them [the horns] a lot of space on that.
Right. Which makes the album what it is.
PSF: My initial reaction to that album was that, even though we've been hearing your compositions all along, it gives me a way to hear them more, when I can separate the composition from the player. Do people ask you a lot, when you're done a performance, how much of it was written?
Yeah, there's all kinds of questions and there's all kinds of answers to that.
PSF: Occasionally that question arises, if you haven't heard someone play the same piece a couple times. I'll give you one example, in fact, the first time I can think of when that question occurred to me [with your music] was when I was listening to the album with Joe Morris [Matthew Shipp Duo with Joe Morris, Thesis (hatArt)], the piece called "The Middle Region," where there's this very intricate interplay.
I'm trying to remember which one that is. Is that number eleven?
PSF: Maybe ten?
Is that a very African one, where we're both playing . . .
PSF: You're playing arpeggios that are kind of interlinking.
Yeah, yeah, that one, okay. Yeah, that basically was just a riff and a rhythm that we just worked out in performance. We practiced some variations for that. I would take a certain rhythm and I would introduce certain notes, you know, I would give him a little sequence. I basically said, let's work out some minimalistic variations, keep African music in mind. If it's the same piece I'm thinking of, which I think it is. And we just fooled around with it a lot and came up with different variations in rehearsal. So that's basically improvisation, but with a very specific concept and a little written music.
PSF: Is that the way it usually works out?
No, everything's different. Some things are predominantly scored. Some things are nothing except for a verbal instruction, which could be as little as color or as much as giving him a group of notes and a rhythm and telling him what to do with it. Or sometimes just like chord changes on a piece of paper and a directional idea. Sometimes one part is completely written and everything else is improvised. There's a piece on an upcoming album with Matt Maneri where the piano part is written out totally and I just tell him to improvise over it. Sometimes I come out with a violin line written and I improvise the accompaniment. Some things are totally improvised, some things are totally written. How you go about putting a section together definitely determines the character of it. Depending on the character you're looking at, the methodology is different all the time.
PSF: In terms of the written versus improvisation issue, how would that apply with the Roscoe Mitchell duo album [Matthew Shipp Duo with Roscoe Mitchell, 2-Z (2.13.61/Thirsty Ear)]?
Basically for that album, we spent all day in the studio. I didn't give him any [music] -- his parts were all improvised. I planned a bunch of stuff I was going to do and I knew how he would react, because in rehearsals throughout the years with his group, I was kind of reacting on maybe sections of music he had written -- and of course I came up with his music. And then for this album I further abstracted that. Like, I would come up with parts that were based on parts I had come up with on my own in the context of his music.
PSF: Sort of filtering it through your own sensibilities.
Right, so then I further abstracted it and came up with a bunch of gestural ideas and piano parts based on that, knowing he would react in certain ways because we had kind of covered those areas accidentally in rehearsals or maybe, like, once in a performance and I remembered it. So I came up with something knowing that in a performance of this piece, this accidentally happened once two years ago and he reacted that way. So I scripted a piano part knowing he would probably react similarly. It was actually pretty interesting, because it worked! (Laughs) In that I would do certain things, remembering that just once I had fooled around with this in a rehearsal and he was just fooling around and he did that, and it kind of carried over to the recording date. He didn't know I was doing it. We laid a bunch of stuff out on tape and I would say, for this next section I'm going to do this, and I would play it, or just say something [give him a verbal instruction]. And it pretty much worked out like I thought it would. It was a pretty interesting experiment.
PSF: What do you think -- this is totally out of the blue, except from talking about Roscoe -- what is your opinion of Anthony Braxton?
Opinion? (Laughs) As a person? A musician?
PSF: Well, ah . . . (Laughs) What is your relationship to his music, do you think? Number one, do you listen to his music?
He's never really been a big influence on me. I've always found him a very -- how can I put this? -- an interesting transitional figure between the free jazz of the Sixties and maybe what occurs now. He's definitely a transitional figure that has to be dealt with, because he was the figure at a certain period. To be honest, most of his music that I prefer is his earlier stuff. Like For Alto; I love that album. And I love his first group with Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland, Barry Altschul -- I love that group. I'm not really that close to his music anymore. There's something about him that I'm definitely trying to escape -- just the psychological need for intense documentation. Maybe it's because I'm of a generation where I feel like putting out albums more like rock musicians do, and I'd rather have fifteen or twenty things in my bin over the period of a career that really count than have eighty or ninety albums. I have no psychological need for that. He seems to be someone that wants to document everything he does. I don't subscribe to that view. I understand that, being an Afro-American of his generation, I understand the psychological need for that. But it's just not where I'm at, which is why I'm trying to slow down.
PSF: I ask because when you talk about the convergence of jazz and the classical tradition, certain names come up. I think Cecil Taylor is one that comes up, and Braxton is another. And obviously they're coming from different places. And you also --
Well, I mean, you've got to understand for somebody in my generation trying to make a name for himself in the middle of this music, at a certain point, Braxton becomes a problem. Because a lot of critics that might not want to deal with me, for whatever reason, they harken back to him. I don't mean this in a pejorative sense to him, but for certain people he's sort of a nostalgic figure to hold onto. And for me, trying to really build a name for myself in the middle of this, in a certain way, my whole way of being has to be kind of a reaction against him, for a lot of reasons. There are a lot of reasons for that and it's not meant in any negative sense towards him. That's just the reality I had to deal with.
PSF: Do you feel like his style -- and I don't pretend to understand his style, what goes into his compositions -- but do you feel that his style of composition, number one, his graphic kind of notation and, I guess, number two, this sense of 'we're not going to just play a riff,' you know, 'head-solo-head' -- do you feel that his composition has anything to say to you?
No, I don't feel that there's -- okay, what you said, like, 'riff-head-riff,' and let's just say the composition that goes between 'riff-head-riff,' it's not being done in a thematic way that bebop does it, but it's encompassing whatever. There's a whole maze of going from A to Z in a non-Braxton group within whatever parameters. He alleges that there's all these structural things going on in a lot of his groups. You know, I don't really hear it. I don't mean that's bad either; I'm not saying it's not worth listening to from A to Z for whatever reason you want to listen to it. That doesn't mean his music doesn't have value. I'm saying I think a lot of people have dumped a lot of intellectual baggage on him and it's kind of worked for him, so he's allowed it to happen.
PSF: Do you think it impedes the process to sketch it out? You know, he presents the diagram: "Here's the composition." In a sense it gives the listener something to latch onto, kind of like a schematic of what the composition is.
Well, I don't believe it is, but anyway . . .
PSF: I couldn't swear it is. I don't think there's enough time in the day for me to study it and figure it out. I also don't mean this in a bad way. But do you think doing this, do you think it's pretentious?
Well, no. On one level -- I'm going to use this term -- if you look at black music, there's this archetype of the secret mathematician that existed back in Atlantis and you, as a musician, you're trying to discover this realm of these equations that kind of feed your music. That's an invisible archetype that's always been prevalent in this music, and it's most obvious manifestation is someone like Sun Ra claiming to be from Saturn and talking about the equations or whatever. You know, that archetype has always existed in this music and it's taken many forms. [Braxton is] just taking it in a different direction. A lot of what he had to do he really had to do at a certain time to survive, actually. He had to create kind of a persona and a character about him just to survive. By saying that, I'm not saying he's not sincere in his explorations, trying to figure out in his own artistic life where some realm of mathematics, some realm of aesthetics, some realm of graphics intersect. All I'm saying is I think there's been certain academics that have tried to bring Braxton into a certain thing and I don't know if he really fits there. I mean, I don't know. I don't know where he fits, to be honest. (Laughs)
PSF: David Ware talks about -- I think he uses the term "music of the spheres." He describes this kind of music that he aspires to, and in a way it's not too far from some of what you're saying. I mean, Sun Ra took it to an extreme.
But not in a sound world. He took it to an extreme of how he dressed, the philosophy.
PSF: Right. He made it a theatrical thing and he built songs around it.
And he made it camp so he could talk a certain philosophical thing. You couldn't look at him as being pretentious because it was funny.
PSF: Now, David talks about it and I understand it. To me, it's -- well, I don't know if I'd call it a philosophical way of looking at it, or --
Well, I think with David, what he's talking about -- On Cryptology, there's a piece called "Panoramic," and on that piece he gave us a whole set of riffs and rhythms, and we're free to go from one to another, connecting them, we're all playing at one time. And we're free to pick any part of the page and play these rhythms and these riffs, and then connect it -- you know, you can go from 'Z' to 'F' if you want -- and connect it, and then you're free to repeat one three times if you want to. So he kind of views music, where he's coming from, he has said that he has once heard in the back of his head this continuum, there's like a fourth dimensional idea, where the rhythm and harmony and the melody are all coming from the same place and they're all intersecting. And he's always in search of that fourth dimension, where they're all kind of rising from the same place in connected form and intersected at the same point, so it's kind of like this realm of pure mathematical orations that he's aiming for and his whole music is stretching for that coalistic type of idea. That's a very specific philosophical realm that David is always in search of.
PSF: I was told you're a Bowie fan. Is he someone who's impacted your music?
It's more a philosophical background. First of all, I just like his music. I'm of a generation of somebody who grew up listening to rock 'n' roll. Low really hit me very hard as a kid. I think the whole idea of that movie, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, and the whole idea of somebody from another planet who has this whole mathematical system in his head. That's not even that far from the whole Sun Ra myth. He knew of that archetype. And then the fact that he really views personality as a very malleable type of thing. There's a very well manipulated and aware schizophrenia that he plays with, in the fact that he fashioned his Ziggy Stardust character. When you look at the people he read, just where he comes from, the whole kind of space-age mythology he represents is just something I relate to a lot.
There are certain recording artists who can kind of bracket to me what a certain artist who takes a certain philosophical tack could be. He's an extreme of one sort. He, to me, has really delved into a certain way of manipulating his image as a recording artist and as a performer. Glenn Gould is another one. On another level John Coltrane is, too -- somebody that seemed to have a real utter sense of what the forces are that allow them to define who they were as a recording and performing artist. They understood what it meant to be in the studio, what it meant to be on-stage, as separate but related entities, and they really understood how to manipulate their image to the world. And those are three people who I think really manipulated things to a higher level, that exercised that intelligence. And they really understood the times they lived in. And how to really manipulate those forces, but it was organic, too, within who they were.
PSF: Is there a resistance among a lot of the musicians you play with to acknowledging these kinds of things in rock music?
Well, I don't talk to them about it. I mean -- there's no resistance with anyone of my age group. You take somebody like Matt Maneri, Joe Morris -- because they grew up with it, so their worldview is radically different than William Parker's or David Ware's, who grew up in an earlier generation. In fact, they might have grown up in that era and been kind of freaked out by the Beatles invasion, like an alien -- like the Beatles were aliens. Then there's definitely a difference in their worldview than someone like myself or Matt Maneri or Joe Morris, who grew up in a rock 'n' roll age. All of it is just life to us.
PSF: No, that's the way I feel. People from this generation can -- with work -- learn to appreciate the older music more easily than the older generation can go the other way. We'll probably find the same thing in twenty years ourselves; we'll probably be as unhip as anybody else. Well, not you -- I will be. (Laughs)
I don't know where I'll be.
PSF: Let me throw a name at you: John Cage. Does he have an influence on you?
Um . . . (Laughs) You know, the thing about John Cage I like more than his music is the fact . . . when it comes to music, Morton Feldman I like a lot more. But how could you not like Cage's energy? He's an American original of sorts. And he's funny. You know, what more can you ask from somebody?
PSF: I've been listening to a little bit of Morton Feldman recently. To me, if there are two extremes in music, yours and his have to be about as far apart as you can get.
As far apart as you can get. And in fact in his worldview there's probably a dogmatism of -- I can imagine an utter hatred for the jazz avant-garde. I know of cases of like, Coltrane being played for John Cage and he just wasn't dealing. They're worlds and worlds apart.
PSF: That kind of shocks you, doesn't it?
No, not at all. In retrospect, it doesn't.
PSF: You'd just think -- John Cage, in his approach to music, seems so open-minded.
Yeah, but it's not the case. I think the heavy rhythmic emphasis would probably be too much for him to deal with.
PSF: It reminds me -- I occasionally wonder what someone like Duke could have done with Eric Dolphy in his band, but then you wonder, would Duke have accepted him? You know, it's like asking, what would Duke think of your version of "Take the 'A' Train" (The Multiplication Table, hatArt).
I have no idea, nor do I care, to be honest.
PSF: Yet he screwed around quite a bit with some of his own compositions.
Yeah, but the thing is, people come from a certain generation and a certain whole way of looking at things, and you really do become a prisoner of your own world. What was once -- this is for anything -- what was once an open park becomes a prison, and that's just by the nature of it. At one point in your life you could have been as open as anything, but just the forces you have to deal with day by day in life over a certain period of time, you know -- everybody just gets tired. It's just part of the mechanism of age. I wouldn't expect Cecil Taylor -- I have no idea what he thinks of my music. I know him, but I've never talked to him about what I do. I could imagine that he could possibly hear it and his mind could just turn off because he doesn't want to hear it, because his struggles could have made him tired to anything he would have to deal with that would have to take him out of being who he is for a second to deal with it. I'm not saying that's the case; I'm just saying I can imagine a scenario like that. Especially for somebody like that. Once you have been through a struggle and you get somewhere, then you really are, like, bathing in the warm water of who you are and you just don't want to come out of that nice warm water.
PSF: This reminds me, I was having a discussion on an Internet newsgroup a couple nights ago, and someone had described you and the Ware Quartet as playing "Sixties music," and it's for just this sort of reason that I said, "I don't think they are playing 'Sixties music.'"
No, we're not. To address that question, because that obviously comes up a lot, are we playing 'Sixties music'? I want to say without equivocation that we are not, and I'm going to go as far as to say that the bottom line is, what we're doing in some ways actually is not even related to the 'Sixties music.' (Laughs) For somebody to make that statement you would have to take the individual players in the group -- well, first of all you'd have to take one of my albums or one of David's albums and you have to be able to say that this album sounds like [a particular] album from the Sixties and you're just not going to be able to do that. I mean, our albums don't sound like ESP albums, they don't sound like Cecil Taylor albums, Coltrane albums, Ornette Coleman albums; they just don't. They're light years, lights years -- something different. What that is, I can't exactly put my hand on. All I can say is that if you're going to say 'Sixties music,' you're going to have to find a pianist in the Sixties that sounds like me, and I really think you're going to have a hard time doing that. (Laughs) Anyway, that goes for the Ware albums and my albums.
I would say that the sound world created between the intersection of William's bass and my piano is completely unprecedented in music history. That's a completely original sound world. For somebody to say 'Sixties music,' you're going to have to find me an album in the Sixties where a pianist and a bass player -- and I'm saying this about my albums and David's, because William and I are on [both] -- you're going to have to find an album in the Sixties where a pianist and a bass player delve into the same area and sound like William and I do together. And you're just not going to find that. It's impossible because it doesn't exist. Case ended; that simple. (Laughs) There's something about how the sound between William and myself, how we suck into each other, it creates another dimension in and of itself. The intersection of that creates some type of gestalt that -- I don't know what it is; it's something above the both of us that creates this other dimension. I don't know what it is but it's something different, some kind of science fiction. (Laughs)
One thing is that our pulse moves at a very rapid level through space. I don't think there's any music of the Sixties that contains the pulse in the rapidity and the way we do it, with the strength and the concept, where the events all occur around the pulse and all have integrity in the middle of the pulse, with the control we do. They didn't play with the control, because I don't think they had the safety nets that we do. We know exactly where we're going at every second of the minute and it was all new to them. And that's not to denigrate -- I mean, some of the music created back then is some of the best music ever created. There's certain albums by Ornette, certain albums by Cecil, like Conquistador and Unit Structures, you know -- great albums of that period. But I do think that, if you look at what Coltrane recorded within the idiom of the avant-garde -- I mean, it's really hard to say what is avant-garde in Coltrane. To me, A Love Supreme is completely not avant-garde, but to some people that's the avant-garde. After that album, I think there's a lot of times in the Coltrane Quartet where they just didn't have the safety nets we have, they didn't know exactly what they were going for. And we really do. (Laughs)
And then some people are going to say, "Well, you're saying that it's codified." No, it's not codified, because actually in a certain way what we're dealing with is very fresh. And I don't know how to describe it, exactly what the parameters are, but I do know that there is a real sense that I'm never going to fall over the precipice, in dealing with the unknown that the, quote, "avant-garde," supposedly gives you. I really always know that there's something that's going to be created that's going to maintain the, quote, "compositional integrity," whatever that means, that some music of the Sixties might have lost in the vortex of it all, being really fresh and new. And that's not saying that what we're doing is codified because a lot of it's unknown to us -- what it's going to be, where we're going to go with it; it really is unknown. There's just a real confidence in the execution, both physically and gesturally and conceptually.
PSF: By not codified, do you mean that a piece the Quartet plays every night could go somewhere totally different one night?
No, no, by codified I mean you can't really teach in school what we do. There's not a system that you can teach in school.
PSF: There's also such an evolution in your music that by the time somebody codifies what you're doing, you might well be doing something else.
Yeah. Or dead.
PSF: Well, yeah. One of the things that people have trouble with about the so-called avant-garde is that it's not something you can break down and intellectualize. You can't put it on paper very well. You can't really notate it. If you can't do that, people kind of throw up their hands and go, "What is it?"
Right. And that's understandable. We live in a very academic society. I can understand how somebody is socialized to react that way. I'm going to go so far as to say it's incumbent upon a musician to really figure out a way to get across what they're about. You know, if they can't do that, they probably shouldn't be bitter that people don't get them. For instance, Monk had to create a whole mode of being to really get across to people what his music was about. People have to be comfortable approaching something and they have to really be handed a framework to see it in. So, in Monk's case, you have this iconoclastic pianist whose attitude is, 'Fuck the world, I do my own music.' He has a certain look. His name, even, is part of the marketing scheme, I mean, Thelonious Sphere Monk -- how can you think of a better name to fit his style of playing? It's all a piece: the way he walks, the way he looks, his name, his whole iconoclastic, existential piano playing that gives him the whole mode of being that he takes. It took years for him to get acclaim but he kind of stayed in his own world all those years. And he has problems too, personal problems, he's insane slightly. And all that feeds into the marketing image. And when you really look at it, it is in a sense easy to digest, even though his music wasn't easy to digest for people back then. When you look at the whole image, it's really easy to get the idea of this piano player, you know, if he looks a certain way. "The Mad Monk" and his crazy piano and his weird chords. It's all a piece, so I think it's easy to digest the image, because as a whole -- except for hardcore music listeners -- people don't buy music for the music. You know, you have to have a whole marketing image to present. And that's a perfect example, "The Mad Monk," that whole thing, is actually a perfect marketing image.
PSF: "The eccentric genius . . ."
Yeah, the "eccentric genius," the iconoclastic pianist, stayed in his own room for years with his own compositions until the world finally catches up to him. He dresses a certain way, a man of few words, you know. His name, like I said -- Thelonious Sphere Monk: there's not a more perfect name to fit his compositions than that name. The majority of people don't really buy music for the sound of it; they buy it for whatever is around it. Musicians have to really create an envelope or a way for people to feel comfortable approaching them. I mean, there's a saying that the hangers you hang clothes on are sometimes more important than the clothes that you hang on them. You're always looking for a deeper thing that ties everything together.
Actually, what I'm referring to is that marketing image, if it really is all a piece and fits the personality of the person, and is part of their whole existential way of being or mode of living. Then it's not even really a gimmick; it really is an organic thing emanating out of the person. And it's not then even really a marketing thing because it's the person really finding a way to be who they are. And if their music is distinct then probably the way they are is going to be very distinct too. And you're going to find a place to breathe in the middle of the marketplace.
Then it all comes down to communication because they're going to be really able to communicate who they are. Their music is going to be unique. And if their music is good then it's going to become the communication of who they are in the realm that they're exploring. It's interesting because on one level it's like a calculated marketing image; on another level they're dealing with something that's actually organic and part of a piece. You're always looking for something deeper that ties things together.
That's what's going on in all this, in how maybe the music has evolved from the Sixties to now, and what we were talking about earlier. If all the sudden the rhythm section is really functioning -- because this is what happens on Critical Mass, one of my quartet albums, or in the Ware Quartet -- what you're really aiming for is that the integrity of what's holding the music together in the rhythm section, or in the very core of the pulse, where the music pulsates out of -- it has so much integrity that every extremity is really part of that core. And therefore, even if you hear it in the whole rhythm section, it really isn't that; it's everything really vibrating out of this really integral center. And therefore there's a fourth dimension holding everything together.
It's really hard to look beneath the surface and see the origin of how it holds together, but it's holding together on such a deep level that there's many vectors for the listener -- if the listener wants to be creative -- there's many vectors for him to actually listen to the music from. Hopefully, in a quartet of mine, which is with Matt Maneri, the violinist, or in a David Ware Quartet, if you want to, you could just follow the piano. You could follow the piano in a section where I'm just accompanying, as not an accompaniment, as a compositional part that has its own integrity. And you can follow, on another level, just the relationship of myself to William. And then maybe you can listen to how we interact with the drummer and then you can listen to how David interacts with the rhythm section, or how we interact with him. Or at some point all that can disappear and it can be one mystic mass of sound. And I think maybe we are looking for -- I don't want to say a deeper level than how the music came together in the Sixties, but a different level. I think I've just covered a lot of things in a different way.
PSF: You were talking about how you basically know where you're going; you have that safety net. Where, on the other hand, Coltrane often sounds like he's looking for himself.
And I think in his, quote, "avant-garde" work he is.
PSF: With you guys there's more of a sense that you know who you are and you're comfortable with that and you're sort of just vibrating within that, and that's a very different thing.
Yeah, and that's extremely accurate. And that is very different.
PSF: How would you relate your music to Monk? Was he an influence on you?
Well, yes, yes, he is. I, first of all, as a pianist, I see myself coming out of the Duke Ellington pyramid of piano playing, which Monk comes out of. If you look at that pyramid, you're basically dealing with Duke Ellington at the top of the pyramid, then you're dealing with Monk, and then from there you're dealing with many extremities. This is the genius of Duke Ellington, too, that you can look at one person -- let's look at three people, post-Duke Ellington, post-Monk, who can look back to that pyramid as influences: Mal Waldron, Randy Weston and Cecil Taylor.
They're all of the same generation and all three come out of the same pyramid. Yet you couldn't find three more distinct, different musical personalities; they're completely different. That's to me a real testament to Duke Ellington and Monk, that they can engender such vast responses to their style. I think if you look after Randy Weston, Cecil Taylor and Mal Waldron, to the next generation, I see myself coming out of the next part of that pyramid. That's specifically the Duke Ellington pyramid, which Monk comes out of, so that's how I see myself related to Monk -- through Duke Ellington, who's a big influence on my piano playing. The second way I see myself related to Monk is that he's kind of the father of the iconoclastic, "fuck the world" school of piano playing (laughs), which is what I fit in, the iconoclastic mode of developing your own music and not really giving a fuck what the world thinks about it.
You develop your own mode of playing. Your personality as a pianist and a composer are interlinked in your whole way of existentially approaching the world. I develop my music and my own style, and fuck you -- you either take it or you don't. And if you don't, I'll wait. So I call that the "fuck the world," iconoclastic mode of piano playing. That's a specific response, a specific stance you take toward the world. And the idea of developing your own music -- that's the school of piano playing I come out of. And that's the other way Monk has influenced me.
PSF: There's one thing I would add, which is that Monk's the pianist credited for pioneering that percussive style.
Well, I think Duke Ellington did. Everything's implied there. A lot of people take aspects of it and build it into a whole universe, but he implied it. Everything is in potential in his music, even though it could be one second of something.
PSF: "Koko" (RCA, 1940) is an example of what you're saying. Supposedly, the first time Duke heard a Monk record, his response was, "Who's that cat knicking my stuff?"
The Monk thing is a great story; it can't be denied -- the whole narrative to his career, narrative to his piano playing, narrative to his career development; it works all together in a beautiful way. You often wonder where the energy for someone to make the decisions that they make comes from. And in a case like that, you know, the whole world was against him, more or less. I mean, this cat developed that style of playing, and like any musician, you come out like, "Bam! I got this," and you play it. And the industry and the world is like, "No." And for somebody to be told "no" and then just to continue to do it in utter disregard for what the world and the industry think is an amazing thing. It's amazing that somebody has whatever that is that allows them to do that. I mean, I don't know what you call that. You could it persistence, you can call it narcissism, you could call it genius, you could call it -- just like they're not even aware.
PSF: They're just oblivious to it.
Yeah, they're just oblivious and driven by that particular muse. But it's a pretty amazing thing.
PSF: Right. Though the other thing he had going for him was that he had all these tunes people wanted to play. So in that sense people had to deal with him --
Well, they didn't deal with him for a long time.
PSF: Yeah, but you had people who wanted to play his tunes and that got his name out whether or not people liked his playing.
Right. Well, there was always a school of musicians that knew he was happening.
PSF: Sure. He was in the middle of all the bebop -- I don't personally consider him a bebop player --
No, he's not. He's his own world.
PSF: But he was part of that crowd: Charlie Parker and Diz and all those guys. Now, it's interesting to trace this, because I would never think to mention Bud Powell in connection to you --
Oh, Bud Powell's probably the biggest influence on my piano playing.
PSF: See, I've heard you say that and that makes me curious. Because I don't hear that.
Well, I think one thing about my playing is that I'm hypersensitive about phrasing and line. That's what's interesting, because people who can't hear my playing, when you get down to it, they can't hear the progressions of how I linearly build things -- if I really analyze what they can't hear. And I can imagine that to somebody that can't hear it, it would sound like gobbledygook, like nothingness. But if you can get into it, basically my playing is all linear and there are certain melodic ideas. And what's actually original about my playing is that my actual sense of phrasing in my lines is completely unprecedented. I will say that without hesitancy.
But if you get down to the genesis of my concept about what jazz piano playing is, it's a certain idea of line. And on the piano, I think, the progenitor of the concepts of pure line that I abstract off of is Bud Powell. I mean, to me, it's there; I hear it. I know what I actually go for in my mind. And it's not a literal thing; it's not like the actual lines he played. But I think it's a coloristic thing he gets on the piano that's based on line and the propulsion behind the line. And in my playing, even at its densest, I really do think like a bebop player, which is integrity of line.
PSF: I can sort of hear it when you're playing with predominantly the right hand and you're playing a very straight melodic line, and then you'll go off into some really dense chords, and to me, if there's a break [between you and Powell], that's where the break is. I can see that in relation to Monk, but do you consider that as coming out of Bud Powell as well?
Yeah. I mean, to me, in developing a concept of what jazz piano is, what is the essence of jazz piano, it's basically four people I look to: Fats Waller and Duke Ellington, in one breadth, and then in the other breadth is that universe between Monk and Bud Powell. That's in coming to some abstract definition of what is the essence of jazz piano. That means something to me, though whether the listener gets that is not important. That's something that means something to me.
PSF: One fairly obvious observation I can make that's true of you and Duke, and also if you have anything in common at all with Cecil, it's that you guys really play the whole piano. Somebody on an Internet group said, "nobody plays the bass end of the piano like Matt does," and that is sort of a given to me as well.
They didn't mean that reductively, did they?
PSF: No, it was something they found exciting within in your music and I agree. It's a very dense sound but it's not a muddy sound. I think that, well, calling it percussive, I think, would be sort of a cop-out, because it's not just percussive. When I was getting into Monk, I heard a lot of people saying he had a percussive piano style, and I heard people as saying that in a negative way. Maybe not everyone does, but I heard that as a way of writing it off. You know, he goes 'plunk' with two dissonant notes and people say, "Well, it's percussive." But on the other hand, to me it's kind of like saying, "I don't want to deal with the notes." Whether he's playing a D and an E, or even an E and an E-flat --
Oh, definitely, there's note choice involved. I have an aunt who doesn't like Monk at all and that's better than what she says.
PSF: Should I even ask?
(Laughs) She says, "Erroll Garner can play the piano. That Monk, that boy should not play the piano. That's not music; it's noise." An aunt of mine says that about Monk, so (laughs) that's one take. I think the bottom line is that the whole gestural realm that you're looking at right now, the whole idea of somebody like Monk, that music by its nature is confrontational. Now, if you actually get into the language, it's not; it's the language. I mean, you can deal with it mathematically. If a major or minor second works for you in the context of this measure and he made a specific note choice and is doing it with a certain type of touch and playing to get a specific thing, that's the language being employed at that period. What I was pointing out earlier about the iconoclastic mode, that specific mode of language, there is an element of it that it is punk -- that is confrontational.
That's just a part of the language of jazz -- at a certain point. I mean, on one level, at a certain time, the language was part of dance music, period. You know, on another level it enters a whole different realm of society, of sociology, and then at times, it does have a confrontational element to it. That's meant to be that way. Whether on the part of the performer, consciously, or not.
PSF: Is that one of the things that you think attracts somebody like a Henry Rollins?
I think jazz by its nature, from bebop on, is an underground language with a very similar gestural genesis to punk. Obviously, it's a completely different music and even the sociology behind it is different, but I'm just talking about the genesis of the gesture of maybe why certain people are creating this. Yeah, there's definitely similarities to punk. And that's what's so interesting about Jazz at Lincoln Center or something like that, where the obvious gesture is completely different. I mean, the gesture there behind it is to take jazz and to give it credibility like classical music has credibility.
You know, you can get "old" type Caucasian money to sponsor it and put it in a nice place, and have all the trappings, so the people that buy subscriptions to symphony orchestras will consider it valid and come out to hear it, like they're going to hear Zubin Mehta or something. That's a diametrically opposed gesture than what Monk and Charlie Parker and Bud Powell were doing at Minton's. (Laughs) You know, diametrically opposed. What's so interesting about Jazz at Lincoln Center is they can actually present old music now that might have had gestures similar to punk when it was originated, but now they're doing it in tuxedos, being sponsored by old Caucasian money, trying to give it credibility, when what makes jazz great is that when it was done, it wasn't "credible." I mean, that's what MAKES it credible. What makes bebop legitimate is the fact that when it was done, it was illegitimate.
PSF: I'll play Devil Advocate's for a minute -- and you said bebop, so I'm changing the rules a bit: What would you say about someone like Ellington bringing his music to the concert hall and writing "Black, Brown and Beige"?
Oh, no, no. First of all, the only reason I'm talking about jazz having a punk aesthetic from bebop on is because I'm actually not that knowledgeable about pre-bebop [jazz] from a sociological standpoint. I mean, I know a lot of his music, but from bebop on, I kind of have a grasp of what was happening. And when I think of earlier jazz, I really think of it in terms of dance music and stuff like that. Now, when you say that, Ellington was somebody who played with a dance band. I mean, he got his start in little society bands around Washington, DC. And, you know, the basic goal was to play dance performances and get pussy. You play, you get paid and you get pussy after the gig. (Laughs) When he started out, he talks about having a girl sitting at his left and right. When I think of that, I think of it all in the same context as I think of somebody playing in a cover band today or at a wedding or something. When he tried to do extended compositions and go into a whole other social realm, he was still a workaday musician, playing dance concerts every night.
When I think of that, the way I structure the way I think about doing that, is as an Afro-American, just wanting to get credibility in another sector of society. In his mind he knows he's creating great music in a dance context, but he wants white people to say that he's doing something valid. And a black person at that time would have had, psychologically, a need to have credibility in a white man's world. Whereas, I would like to think people of my generation -- just because of certain things my parents have gone through, their parents have gone through, I don't really feel the need to get credibility from whites apart from being myself. We were talking about that earlier with Braxton. I was talking about the need for documentation -- just the fact that he's of a generation of my father and people, it's just a whole different head-space.
My father, for instance, has a Ph.D. that he got after he retired from his first job. And I don't mean this in a bad way; he got it because he went into a different career after that -- he actually needed it for his new career. But on another level, there's also the need in his generation to have credibility in the eyes of Caucasians, by saying, "I'm well educated." Whereas, in my situation, I dropped out of college -- I don't give a fuck. (Laughs) I mean, I don't have a college degree and I don't want a college degree. (Laughs)
PSF: What good would it do you?
Yeah, that's what I'm saying. And even credibility-wise to me, it means nothing. And also, in my dealings with Caucasians, you know, I could look at you and you could have a Ph.D., and you could ask me what college I went to, whereas somebody from my father's generation, it really means something to be able to say, "I went to Yale," or whatever. Or even a generation past my father, to some of them -- to me, that shit's meaningless. It's meaningless.
So what I'm saying is, back with Duke Ellington, there was a need to get credibility in another strata of society. About Parker and Monk, I don't know what was going through their heads, but I can actually imagine as young men, to them there was kind of a disconnect maybe between someone of Duke Ellington's generation and how somebody of that generation saw the world, and maybe some of the forces [they had to] -- I don't want to say kiss up to -- but deal with in their way, whatever way they had to deal with it. I can imagine the energy behind [them] -- because obviously somebody like Monk or Bud Powell was out there, you know.
They took pretty radical stands that were at odds [with society]. I can imagine that they might have seen the way somebody like Duke Ellington or someone of his generation kind of had been victims of certain ways of trying to get credibility within white society. I can imagine that their aesthetic could have been a "fuck you" to them -- a "fuck you" to Duke Ellington and people like that, too, on some level. I'm not saying that dogmatically; I'm saying I could see that possibility.
PSF: You've really got me thinking now. I think one difference between Ellington and, say, Wynton Marsalis playing Ellington at Lincoln Center -- I think Ellington, in his time, really had an idealistic belief then that a few years from now, all these racial problems are going to be conquered.
PSF: Especially during World War II. He thought, 'Look, we're fighting intolerance with this World War -- we're fighting the Nazis; we're fighting prejudice.' He really thought, 'This is going to change things at home.' He wrote "New World a-Coming," because he really thought, 'There's a new world a-coming.'
PSF: And it didn't come.
No, and it's not coming. (Laughs)
PSF: And I think the beboppers were of that next generation that knew it didn't come, it's not coming. So there was kind of a jaded kind of a sensibility there.
Well, I don't know if it was jaded. I think it was . . .
I think they were dealing with the energy of who they were and the information of how they wanted to live. None of us can really, in retrospect, be sure what was going on. We can just view the energy and make abstractions from where we stand, on what that energy was. Obviously, a Monk or a Duke Ellington is very aware of people. Even Monk, within his iconoclastic way of being and whatever insanity or personal problems he had, had an extreme awareness of himself and the fact of what he's dealing with and the intersection of that.
But at times I sense a narcissism -- not a narcissism, but they know there's many forces they're dealing with, and maybe they're dealing with music as a force within that, a self-imposed world. They're trying to present maybe this miniature world that's perfect and they don't really care about the outside. I don't think they had any need to make society a certain thing, and in some cases there's such a level of -- narcissism's not quite the word, but a self-indulgence -- not in music, but in a personal lifestyle, that I don't think they even gave a fuck. I think maybe there was even a certain hedonism involved. In SOME individuals. (Laughs) I want to very clear about that. And I think you know what I'm speaking of (laughs) when I say that.
PSF: Even somebody like Duke could talk about that, though it would go over people's heads. Duke could say something with such tact. I remember seeing him, very late in his life, on some talk show, and they were talking about life on the road. And he said something like, "Well, I didn't get these bags under my eyes from staying up late practicing piano."
Actually, I wasn't talking about him.
PSF: But he had so much class personally that people would miss it.
Well, he was a master psychologist.
PSF: That's true. In many ways, yes.
Master group leader, master organizer, master, um . . . he's a master master. (Laughs) But my original point was about that punk aesthetic and how weird it is to see Lincoln Center presenting concerts the music of Monk or Charlie Parker, but they do it in the realm of old Caucasian money, presenting them in tuxedos --
PSF: Like in a museum.
In a classical museum kind of setting, just how funny that clash between the genesis of the gesture . . .
PSF: That context is lost.
PSF: And obviously some people look down at the music, I'm talking about Wynton and the neo-classicists, as some people call them -- I don't have a particular ax to grind against them --
No, I don't either. But I will say this -- that musical language is an alive force. And given that as it is, I think anybody, anachronisms -- anything is allowed. I mean, this is an open world. Somebody can come along today that could truly be, for some mysterious reason, tied into that old life force that made music what it was in the Forties, and they could do that with verve and with, um . . .
PSF: No pun intended.
Yeah, (laughs) no pun intended. With the real understanding of what that language was, and I think there are people that do that. I think there's -- and I'm going to use the word -- I think there's neo-cons that are not cons. I think that for whatever reason, that's just the music they love. And there's a place for that in the world; it should be done. But I do think in the context of the Lincoln Center, if you take it as a context and an entity, I do think that the language cannot exist in that envelope. It's like if you take an organism that lives in the water and put it on land, it's going to die. I think it's the same.
I think in the context of that place, that language cannot live in there; it just dies in that setting. It's not meant to breathe there. A language is a living thing. You can take any language as having its own subconscious life force and it knows where to go and where not to go. And it -- for obvious reasons -- just can't go up there; the language can't breathe in the Lincoln Center. It cannot exist and it's just that simple. Those tuxedos they wear when they play choke the life out of the music. It can't exist in that environment and it's just that simple. And that is meant as a dogmatic statement. The language is alive and like anything else, it goes to bizarre places. You know, a life force that exists on subconscious realms where humans can't control it, it'll go to a bizarre place and manifest there.
And by the time the old Caucasian money catches up with it and puts it in a place like the Lincoln Center, by virtue of it -- the language being an alive force -- it can't be manipulated by the old Caucasian money and it can't breathe -- that's what I call the type of "classical" money that controls it; that's not meant as a racist thing. It can't breathe there; it can't go there. So I mean, it's just a very interesting thing, because by the time an Afro-American like a Wynton or Stanley Crouch can get in a position where they can manipulate the old Caucasian money, and they're Afro-Americans, the language is going to run away from them, because it just can't exist in that envelope, being a live thing.
PSF: Now, Crouch you have a little bit of a personal experience with.
(Laughs) Well, there's no reason to bring it up. Yeah. This is not meant -- I'm actually trying to talk about the metaphysics of language and language being an alive force.
PSF: No, I'm with you, but you bring up Crouch, and he's somebody -- he and Wynton both are people who have used their position to denigrate certain kinds of musicians.
PSF: Which is unfortunate.
Well, it's not unfortunate -- it's evil. I mean -- (Laughs)
No, it's evil for people to get in a position of power, especially in conservative times, when money will obviously flow to the conservative entity. And then to use a position of privilege and money and power that's based in conservatism, to denigrate other people's efforts is evil. I mean, that's evil. That goes beyond, like, I mean, it's the ultimate evil. And that's where they've gone with the Lincoln Center. To me, it's utterly evil.
PSF: Yeah, and I don't want to harp on it, but --
And I don't either.
PSF: But it's sort of this "circle the wagons" thing, where it's like, "We have to protect this art form," that really, in my opinion and yours, probably, doesn't need protecting.
Well, that's the major point. But basically once you get down to it, you can't even look at it as anybody protecting music. It's capitalism. Period. So what you have is this stupid motherfucker -- and, you know, I'm including myself, when I say this -- this stupid motherfucker's out here claiming to be the protector of what art is and this stupid motherfucker's out here claiming it, and basically, everybody's just trying to get paid. Language doesn't need any of our protection -- it's what it is; it will manifest itself for whatever reasons it chooses to: mystical -- when I say mystical, I'm including the idea of a musician getting paid, economics, as a mystical language -- so mysticism, that word, is encompassing a lot of things right now.
The language doesn't need any of our protection. We're all human beings out here, trying to make ourselves happy in our own lifestyle with the decisions we make in life, trying to get paid so we can live a comfortable lifestyle. And then trying to put our work out here so people can get a chance to get to it for whatever uses it will have in their life, [if it] inspires them in their own work, in a political way, in a mystical way, and just a relaxation way. But the bottom line is all of us in the media -- musicians, myself included -- put ourselves out here in a position like we're the ones trying to define what art is or language is, and the language does NOT need us. (Laughs) If we weren't here, it would manifest through somebody else.
PSF: You've each got your own voice. and why should one voice say, "I'm the language?"
PSF: The thing is, you say there's a place for what Wynton does, but he doesn't feel the same way back.
Right. Well, that's the thing. There's a place for what he does but when you really look at him, he's an academic, and that's the bottom line. And these are academic times, so a lot of times the musicians in this time that get over are academics. And there's a fear for a musician being able to get over -- Monk got over, eventually, over a period of decades -- for people to deal with his music for what it was, his music. That idea in the modern world is almost impossible for anybody to get to. They have to have a reason to deal with it. You were talking earlier about the idea that somebody can see it on paper; that's a way for them to psychologically get to it. And it all gets to this ingrained academicism that exists in society today.
Wynton Marsalis is an easy figure for people to digest because he's an academic, whereas I think a Charlie Parker or a Monk or the figures that we have come to know in jazz are not academics. But in this period, for a jazz musician to actually be digestible, he's had to be an academic. The idea of somebody relating to someone's music for what it is -- their music -- is something that somebody can't get to as an idea. It's almost like, "What? How dare you?" Getting back to the punk aesthetic and then the idea of the energy behind Charlie Parker and Monk -- which is radically different, which we've covered, than the kind of energy behind Duke Ellington -- and then the energy behind Wynton Marsalis . . . there's a lot for people to think about. There's just a lot.
All of us are out here trying to get people to buy our CD's, but at the bottom line, you really got to deal with the language for what it is and you got to deal with society for what it is. In a certain way, you just got to look at the language you're dealing with and realize it's just not easily digestible in society for these reasons. But then at the same time, your presentation of it can't be elitist, because that's what scares a lot of people off. There has to be a balance between knowing the stance is maybe confrontational or not easily digestible, because of the preconceptions people have for these reasons, and presenting your thing in a way that's not elitist. You know, Monk, playing his licks and then getting up, doing his little dance at the piano because he's Monk. That's part of his language. It somehow comes down to having a real sincerity, and if there's a real sincerity and organic quality that's generated from the sincerity of the language, you know, then communication will occur.
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