Matthew Shipp

Steve Dollar, Stomp & Stammer

There are several topics that were not discussed in this interview. These are:
  • How Matthew Shipp became Henry Rollin's favorite piano player.

  • Matt's early days as a starving jazz musician when he earned a few extra bucks posing nude for life drawing classes.

  • Which jazz critics he'd like to beat up and why.

  • Which jazz critics have threatened to beat him up and why.
  • Off-the-record opinions on certain peers who will not be named.

  • Why Matt always stops to pick up a penny when he glimpses one on the street, even though he's making some decent bread these days.

  • How his public reading of the essay "Boxing and jazz' went a few weeks back, when he shared an East Village stage with the likes of Village Voice rock scribe Robert Christgau and other assorted literati.

  • Which book was more inspirational to him as a young seeker of Truth: Democratic Vistas or Think and Grow Rich?

  • His favorite Elton John song. (hint: it's - "Bennie and the Jets.")

  • Why Chan Marshall is so fucking cool. (OK, we talked about that one a little bit. Says Matt, who met the Cat Power chanteuse while standing in the same line to pay his Con Edison bill: "She's one of the nicest people I've ever met.")

It's not that Shipp won't talk about these things. We just didn't get around to them, or, if you've read one of the zillion-and-a-half pieces written about the pianist in the past few years, from scabrous, low-rent 'zines such as this one you're reading, to cultural totems like Rolling Stone and the New York Times' Sunday Arts pages, then you know all this stuff anyway. He's almost singular among contemporary jazz musicians in his ability to generate enthusiasm for his (admittedly) complex and demanding music beyond genre confines. Most people I know who identify themselves as "jazz" fans don't even know who he is, but bump into any Joe sporting a WREK T-shirt at the L5P Aurora on a Tuesday morning, and he'll probably Quote from the Book of Matthew chapter and verse.

Ah, but like a true missionary, Shipp is now trying to reach the dry-cleaned masses, the kind of folks usually put off by jazz because they think it's so much aural broccoli: good for you, but who cares? His latest album, Pastoral Composure, is the most beautiful music Shipp's ever recorded, swinging and lyrical in ways even his fans would not automatically expect (though these qualities have always been present in Shipp's playing, here they are deliberately less abstract), but also richly humorous (he turns "Frere Jacques" into a Jazz Gremlin's Day Out) and genuinely adventurous, particularly in the addition of master trumpeter Roy Campbell (who plays something like an earthier Don Cherry, if you've never checked him out), whose tone painting is one of the more glorious aspects of the concept. The quartet session (with bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver) launches the Blue Series, a new line of jazz titles Shipp is producing for rock indie Thirsty Ear. Coming up will, be albums from Parker (an ass-whompingly great trio session with reedsman Daniel Carter and drummer Hamid Drake), the incredible violinist Mat Maneri and pianist Craig Taborn. Shipp's ambitions are not modest.

But, as they say down south, "It ain't braggin' if you can do it."

SD: If the underground's going aboveground by approaching the mainstream, making it easier to get to, what's so different from that than someone who's been playing mainstream jazz all along? Not, say, Kenny G, but maybe Kenny Barron?

"I think we bring a whole different stream of energy. OK, Kenny Barron, he's a brilliant, brilliant jazz pianist. A great player. But I think that language has kind of died. He's an authentic jazz player. Played with Dizzy , Gillespie, blah, blah, blah. You have somebody like Brad Mehldau who brings a whole different stream..."

Maybe he's a better example.

"...of energy to the music. He has a better chance to get a fan base of people who truly get something out of his music. People like that have to have a concept of why they're playing in this music in this time period. And as long as they're comfortable, as long as they're not trying to live in the past, and they're comfortable with who they are and what they're doing and have a true understanding of why they're doing it, they're going to be well-off in the future.

Somebody like him really does have a chance to bring a fresh energy to the music. We're coming at it from a different standpoint, and we do have a fresh energy that we're putting into that language and we have an understanding of that language. Going through the free jazz thing and not pretending it didn't exist, we have an expanded idea of what an improviser is, what improvisation is, and we're trying to bring an understanding of what this mysterious and beautiful process is. Everyone should understand, because when you run into somebody on the street and you start talking you're improvising. You don't have a. script made up. It's a very simple phenomenon that everybody does in their life every day.

"We're just doing it in music. Mainstream jazz, what it has become to me, is academic, and that's what we want to stay away from .We want it to have the freshness of our personalities. Mainstream jazz has become overly academic. I definitely feel that way about the Wynton Marsalis school."

Why has jazz been infected with academicism?

"In the early '20s and '30s when it was pop music that was one thing. And another thing in the '60s, when it was associated with some social movement, or a bunch of hippies that are high and it's just quite groovy music. But when people are so rooted in it becoming an object of historical knowledge, or you have people trying to use it for pseudo-academic ways of making themselves look good because they understand it and no one else does, then it's automatically been infected.

People listen to music for spiritual enlightenment, to have in a social situation so you can get pussy, the music exists for various reasons. To have a backdrop to relax after work, or in the sense of Coltrane to enlighten the mind for spiritual reasons, or you have it to look cool. Or to dance to. Once it becomes a tool for people to pimp history -- it just becomes a tool for the record industry to sell reissues -- or when it becomes a status symbol for grant-getting, then it's in danger.'"

OK, but is your average Joshua Redman fan going
to pick up on that vibe?

"That's the challenge. We have to go up against the major labels and portray jazz as this dead thing that's been killed by them and that we have a good alternative. That IS the truth."

This energy has been gathering for a few years, but it builds incrementally. It's that brick-by-brick thing.

"We need massive money to get past that. The jazz industry has to fall off its own weight eventually. London Bridge is falling down, and I just built my own bridge."

So you're working with DJ Spooky. What's up with that?

"I did my part. He's finishing his part. He's taking a long time to do it. I'd like to put that out on the Blue Series under his name. My other label, Hat Art wants to do it, as well. Spooky's a big Hat Art fan. He likes that type of European art vibe. I don't know where it's going to go. He's doing all kinds of electronic outrages. Obviously, there's an aspect of him wanting to tap into my audience and me wanting to tap into his audience. I'm not even going to pretend that's not there."

Has pro wrestling been a big influence on your creative strategies?

"Yeah it has."

How so?

"Pro wrestling is a huge improvisation. Sylvester Stallone said pro wrestlers are the greatest improv actors he's ever seen. One week a wrestler goes out and his gimmick doesn't work. Two weeks later, the exact same gimmick is working, for some reason. It's a huge improvisation based on the here and now. So it's almost like pro wrestling is following the Dao. Also, to me, people always look at pro wrestling as being phony but there's a whole lot more phoniness in the jazz industry. Pro wrestling is rooted in something real, even though it's scripted.

What are you proudest of about Pastoral Composure?

It's not just endemic to the album, but how the musicians that I play with and various people in our circle can always rise to the occasion. I'm dealing with people who have been out there for many years and had a lot of experiences in this music and a lot of them, if they wanted to, could choose to be bitter because other people have made more money, but these people always rise to the occasion, with the utmost professionalism and the utmost love for the music. That goes for Pastoral Composure, for Daniel Carter's playing on William Parker's album Painter's Spring. Even though William's doing really well now, a lot of other people on the scene might even have trouble with basic bills.

But there's no sense of that. They're right on the money. There's no cynicism involved, and that's amazing to me. Not in my music, but in my general overall outlook, I think a degree of cynicism has sunk in. Even though, I get up in the morning and do something about it. I don't just take a gig for the money or anything. I work. I funnel my cynicism into hard work. Look at the Roy Campbells and Daniel Carters of the world: They get up in the morning and do their thing, with the utmost integrity."

But these are musicians who suffer from a lot of cynicism. I think they get taken for granted. Dismissed as "loft jazz."

"I think the people that have that attitude, they themselves are the ones who are really in trouble. They're projecting their nothingness. I'm not defining these people, but they'd be more than happy to put you in your grave and then say, 'Oh, wow, he was doing some nice stuff.' Everybody is more than happy to go along with that. I'm not. I have too much self-respect to be some product that a few obscurists know about and be discovered when it's too late."

Matthew Shipp performs May 27th at 6 pm in Piedmont Park as part of the Atlanta jazz FestivaL He'll be there as part of the David S. Ware Quartet, which is pretty damn whomp-ass itself.

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