Changing, One Day to the Next
Philip Clark, JazzReview
His mother had been a childhood friend of Clifford Brown and an early glimpse of Ahmad Jamal and Nina Simone on television was enough to convince Matthew Shipp that jazz was something that stimulated him. "Jazz was always in the air", he says, and I naturally gravitated towards it."
Shipp's first priority when he moved to New York from his native Delaware was to seek out the bassist William Parker, who became his introduction into the complex network of personalities and groups that make up the most radical wing of the New York contemporary jazz scene: they are now both integral to the dizzy success of the David S. Ware Quartet and perform together in a duo and trio context and in the Other Dimensions In Music quartet. Other regular colleagues include guitarist Joe Morris, violinist Mat Maneri and trumpeter Roy Campbell and Shipp's flexible ability to look beyond something called "free jazz" has allowed him to find an original niche it, a vastly oversubscribed scene. His wider interest in the music of Charles Ives, John, Cage and Morton Feldman and his passion for turn-of-the-Iast-century American transcendental philosophers like Emerson and Thoreau give his music intellectual spine where others only have busy fingers. His music poses the fascinating question "can this be jazz?" and constantly challenges perceived wisdoms, sometimes even his own.
"In my early days I wanted to make a big splash and was more enamoured at the ideal of being a 'free jazz player. Now I'm not even sure what it is I'm trying to do. I'm changing very quickly and from one day to the next I see things completely differently. Some days I'm very proud to be a jazz musician and part of a great lineage and at other times I disdain being a jazz musician and an avant-garde jazz musician -- I just want to be a 'Matt Shipp' musician, whatever that means. Of course Monk, Bud Powell, Andrew Hill, Paul Bley and Cecil Taylor are where I come from but sometimes all of it feels like a straightjacket and posturing. If I'm in the studio or recording live, the album is a product of that period or sometimes even that day and it can come from a philosophical mindset that I don't feel a year down the line."
As if to prove the point, Shipp's latest hatOLOGY recording Expansion, Power, Release features his String Trio (with Mat Maneri and William Parker) in music that hovers between freely improvised and traditionally conceived 'changes' jazz. The opening track "Organs" begins with Shipp's carefully composed chords over which Maneri and Parker weave complex improvised lines. It's an alluring juxtaposition that hints at Shipp's enthusiasm for Ives. In stylistic contrast, the pianist, next CD will reflect his interest in DJ culture and groups like Massive Attack and Portishead.
"I'm into DJ culture and hip-hop and drum n' bass. I'll be using acoustic piano with Chris Flann generating beats and syncing the piano parts up to rhythm tracks. And this feels right for my American label Thirsty Ear but my hatArt albums deal with a different set of preoccupations. When I'm involved in a label I really try to be myself but then see the broader thing. The relationship I've built with Werner Uehlinger from hatArt is a meeting of minds. it's interesting that I'm a part of his label now because I grew up listening to the hatart Morton Feldman recordings and paid a lot of attention to Anthony Braxton's work for the label in the 80s. I've tried to build on the label's tradition and Expansion, Power, Release is inevitably going to be different to any of the work I've recorded on Thirsty Ear.
"I like to think of my String Trio as having a chamber music vibe, but the music at its essence is modem jazz. My piano part in the first track is fully written out and the chords are carefully voiced. And at the first rehearsal I told William and Mat what I wanted gesturally and how I wanted them to interact. It's therefore musically loose but striving for a specific sound I had in mind."
The title Expansion, Power, Release is an echo of the way Cecil Taylor's music is often described; but Shipp is anxious to avoid a close correlation.
"The title really grew out of me playing with words and ideas to do with Hindi myths about energy. Other than the fact we both play piano and don't use standard chord changes, Cecil and I generate our musical universe in completely opposing ways and have a radically -- I mean radically -- different rhythmic approach. I haven't listened to his music for 20 years and I've tried to block him out my mind. When I first joined the David Ware band I was the pianist in a band of all Cecil Taylor alumni and was very sensitive to the comparison, so much so that I made a conscious decision to make different musical choices. But if people actually listen to what I play they'd realise how different we really are. The comparison is just too convenient and gets in the way."
Expansion, Power, Release rejoices in the sort of consonant harmony and regular pulse that would be alien to 'pure' free jazz. This muddies the stylistic water and stamps Shipp's personality firmly on the music - to paraphrase the famous title of an Ornette Coleman record "This Is My Music." The work Shipp has recorded for Thirsty Ear includes the probing New Orbit with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and the highly engaging Pastorale Composure with Roy Campbell. Much of the music in Pastorale Composure deals with standard swing rhythms and changes, with Shipp's beautifully shaped solos recalling Bud Powell and Herbie Nichols. The pianist has said that his decision to include "Frere Jacques" was purely accidental. The tune turned up in the middle of a set with the David Ware group and here it's heard in a Tristano-like conversation with itself. The wit of "Frere Jacques" is offset by a brooding assault on "Prelude To A Kiss" that wipes away the layers of sentiment and finds something more powerful. Even though recordings like Prism (hatArt) and Before The World (FMP) are now nearly ten years old there's already a restlessness and searching quality that reveals Shipp's desire to step outside what's expected of him. Is this an acknowledgment that the anger and extremes of free jazz belonged to the tensions of an era which has now past? Perhaps to play that music now would be a contrived attempt to recreate the urgency of that anger?
"They're very loaded questions and probably someone's PhD thesis. The 60s were a very turbulent time and people were dealing with new ways of perceiving freedom and stepping out of certain social structures. A figure like Sun Ra was a complete and utter product of segregation in Alabama. I can't get inside his mind and see how he viewed the world -- I'm a product of integration and can't even pretend to know how it was for the guys who pioneered the music. I don't really feel that I'm fighting anything in society -- I'm fighting personal restrictions that people are trying to put on me. That's not to say that this music doesn't have an agenda but my major reasons for playing it are aesthetic. The people I like in the music are talented musicians and I like the sound of their music."
Shipp's celebrated spat with Wynton Marsalis guru Stanley Crouch came out of his rejection of the idea that the avant garde his anything to apologise for. He thinks that even someone so firmly rooted in the new wave of 60s jazz as David Murray lost his way in the 70s when he tried to sound like Ben Webster. His raw thoughts about Crouch and Marsalis ire probably unprintable but he's described the work at Lincoln Center as "evil" and governed by the values of "Caucasian money". He questions whether music can really develop and breathe in that contrived environment of academia and suggests that William Parker has been one of the few musicians who has kept his head when all about him lost theirs.
"We call William 'The Mayor' and I guess he's the centre of our jazz community. When I moved to New York, William was with Cecil. He seemed able to bridge that generation gap and was very welcoming to new players. His first recording had been with Frank Lowe on ESP and he was working with young guys like Daniel Carter and Roy Campbell, but Cecil represented an earlier generation. When I first heard William in the early 80s there was something in his sound that was fresh and had a spirit that didn't reflect the cynicism of the 70s."
"People got duped into thinking there was something wrong with the avant garde and there seemed to be a prevailing feeling that one couldn't develop an organic music that had relevance. And this was true within the avant garde. You had people making records called things like "Back To Tradition" and this is before Wyntonism. "
"Wynton was reacting against a lot of bad fusion and dispassionate avant garde music but in the middle William was still doing his thing and believed in the freshness of his own illuminated sound. And when I moved to New York that was just not being done. It seemed like everyone forgot that you can have your own voice and play without compromise. He didn't appease a certain mentality by running into a corner and trying to sound like Jimmy Blanton. He was just himself and let the music grow from his personality."
Gary Giddins recently exclaimed in the Village Voice that the David S. Ware group is "the best small band in jazz today." When Ware hired Shipp on Parker's recommendation he was hardly known, but the pianist feels exactly right for Ware's 'fire music' perspective on tradition. And on the evidence of their recent duo set at London's Royal Festival Hall, the 'illuminated sound' of the Shipp and Parker duo is as close to a truly deep and spontaneously improvised music as we're ever likely to hear.
If their Turning World does have a Still Point, it's the trust they've built up over many years. This allows their spontaneity to be even more audacious because there's a wealth of experience to bounce off. In London, Shipp peppered his powerful streams of consciousness with phrases plucked from "Take The 'A' Train", "Come Sunday" and even bop standards. Yet this wasn't so much back-to-tradition, as his treatment of found musical objects manages to tell us where he's come from and how he's turned that heritage into something personal. The profusion of borrowed material and quotation in Charles Ives' music performs a similar function and it's no coincidence that Before The World is steeped in the impossibly rich textures of Ives' piano music.
"I was heavily into Ives 20 years ago and his Concord Sonata used to sit on my piano and I played it every day. I'd take bits of it to improvise around and it's deeply embedded in my subconscious. Ives was very influenced by the transcendental philosophers and their ideas come closest to how I view the world. Emerson, Whitman and Thoreau all attempted to find a universal but specifically American application of transcendental philosophy. Ives and myself come from this same philosophical background and that's going to influence how we structure the music. In a similar way to philosophy, music is a collection of ideas and thoughts about a particular world view."
With thanks to Steven Joerg and Alexis Tedford with their help in preparing this article. "Expansion, Power, Release" is on hatOLOGY 558, "Before The World" on FMP CD81 and Shipp's Thirsly Ear CDs are available from www.thirstyear.com.
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