Matthew Shipp

New York is Now
The New Wave of Free Jazz

by Phil Freeman, The Telegraph Company


Matthew Shipp is not only at the very heart of the current New York free jazz scene, he is increasingly impossible to ignore in jazz as a whole. The impact of his career on the music and the scene is undeniable and irrevocable. There's no going back to the way things were before he arrived. Shipp has changed things for audiences, players, record companies and the jazz press.

A tall, skinny 40-year-old, Shipp gazes out from behind small, wire-rimmed glasses. He speaks in a soft, rumbling voice, laughing a lot. His speech patterns are, like his piano playing, a furious and constant flow of ideas. Unlike his music, which rarely if ever seems random or confused, when speaking he often gets ahead of himself or heads off on a tangent, and has to double back and rediscover the main thrust of where he was going to begin with. But, just as his albums and performances all emanate from an all-encompassing musical concept, Shipp's conversation is always centered on one idea-music. Playing it, selling the records, and getting people to listen. Other topics come up -- boxing, professional wrestling, Buffy The Vampire Slayer -- but Shipp is always ready to talk business.

Shipp keeps close tabs on the music scene, particularly in New York. He knows at all times who is writing about the music, and what they're saying. Almost every day, he makes the rounds of lower Manhattan record stores, checking on which of the twenty or so CDs he's recorded as a leader are selling. (When his recordings with the David S. Ware Quartet, Roscoe Mitchell's Note Factory, Other Dimensions In Music, Brazilian saxophonist Ivo Perelman and others are factored in, Shipp's discography nearly doubles.) He's virtually a fixture at Kim's, Other Music and Tower Records, all of which are neighborhood stores for the longtime Lower Fast Side resident.

Over the past decade, Shipp's popularity and public profile have steadily grown. His name appears in the jazz press even more than David Ware's or William Parker's (though Parker and Shipp are often mentioned in the same sentence, as they are creative partners on the deepest level). Shipp is well-known in New York, particularly among underground music fans with little or no connection to the rest of the jazz scene. "We are college radio, when it comes to jazz," Shipp says, as an example. "Or when you have coming into existence stores like Kim's or Other Music that have a very small jazz section, but who do they have? They have me, David Ware ... there's no Wynton [Marsalis]. At Other Music, there's no Miles Davis, but we're the jazz section. And across the country, there's mom-and- pop stores that have that ethos, and we're there."

Initially, Shipp emerged as part of the weird cross-pollination between the worlds of indie rock and punk and the initially insular New York free jazz scene. Until almost the middle of the 1990s, the few people playing free jazz were not only outcasts from mainstream jazz, they were virtually ignored even by the underground or avant-garde scene of the day. When Shipp moved to New York in 1984, the stratification of the City's musical environment was immediately apparent. "The only things that were happening were they Wynton thing - the "neo-conservative' thing -- and the white avant-gardists that were downtown, the whole Zorn, post-Zorn thing," he explains. "And for a black musician to be trying to actually play an instrument in their own style -- people didn't even listen to the content. All they heard is that you were sitting there improvising, so they think of you [as being] in the Cecil Taylor school. To actually listen and see that you're actually playing different ideas didn't even occur to them, so they just write you off. So I entered a political environment where there was just no place for me. The Howard Mandels [Down Beat writer and author of Future Jazz (Oxford University Press 1999)] and all those people kinda wrote me off and laughed at me. The only white critic of that school who actually paid attention to me was Gene Santoro of the Daily News. "

Shipp's music has been embraced by the alternative rock community, causing a significant change in the perception of free jazz, due in large part to his de facto sponsorship by punk-rock figurehead Henry Rollins, who reissued two of Shipp's albums (Circular Temple and Zo) on his Infinite Zero label. Rollins also released three albums of new material (2-Z, Flow Of X, and Critical Mass) on his other label, 2.13.61, becoming Shipp's patron and ambassador to the rock world. Shipp is very much aware that without Rollins' support, his career would likely not be where it is today. "It [the indie-rock crossover] was perfect for me," he says, "because I fit right into the ethos of Henry and those people, because the music was the most vital thing. It was a home. And it was a home with people with profile, so the little jazz ghetto, instantly I was a notch above them just by virtue of being with people with an actual name in American culture really feeling something with your music. So it put me on a level above the little ghettoized critics that wouldn't give me the time of day before. I instantly, in a second, was above them." The fact that it's no longer in any way shocking to see a free jazz album reviewed in CMJ, Alternative Press or Magnet is a tribute to the change in public perception created by Shipp's and Rollins' efforts. "It's not still alive in the sense that it was then, with the whole surprise element, 'Wow! Alternative rock kids are listening to jazz!"' Shipp says. "That's over, that initial wave, but it did give us a foothold in the marketplace in a lot of ways."

Shipp's debut album is Sonic Explorations (Cadence), a duo with alto saxophonist Rob Brown. But it was Circular Temple, a trio session with William Parker and drummer Whit Dickey, which launched him into the public eye. Like many of his other records (Strata, Thesis, Zo, Prism) it is a suite in multiple parts. The four sections of Circular Temple are thematically similar, but stylistically very different from one another. In particular, "Circular Temple #2 (Monk's Nightmare)" stands out from the other three. As its title would indicate, it is the most bop-rooted section of the album, but as John Farris wrote in the liner notes, "Monk would have been transfixed, terrified." The cut begins with a relatively simple, straight-ahead melodic figure, actually more similar to Bud Powell than Thelonious Monk. Soon, though, Shipp begins breaking the melody into chunks, and heads decisively towards the lower range of the keyboard. His piano rumbles along beside William Parker's bass for long moments, the two creating a percussive, angular duet. Whit Dickey's flat, dry drumming complements the pair's work brilliantly, but as with all Shipp/Parker recordings, the duo interaction is paramount. Over the course of the piece's ten-minute running time, Shipp returns often to beautiful, melodic figures, but the overall tone is one of great abstraction, and the music is often more violent than his later work. In these early recordings, it is easy to see how a listener might make the connection with Cecil Taylor's trio recordings, particularly works from the 1980s, which feature Parker on bass.

The Taylor comparison was natural early in Shipp's career. Yet, even after it ceased to be in any way applicable, it dogged him for years. It occasionally still shows up, but for the most part Shipp's own notoriety forces all but the most obstinate critics to hear his music on its own merits. Actually sitting down and listening to the two players today reveals obvious differences in their respective styles, particularly as Shipp's music has evolved to its present remarkable levels.

Obviously, without Taylor's pioneering work, no one would have had any reference point for Shipp's aesthetic when he appeared. And indeed, he has cited Taylor as a strong formative influence. At this point, though, there is relatively little which connects Shipp's music to Taylor's. Where Taylor quite often still concentrates on percussive effects, to the detriment of melody, Shipp tends to focus more and more on the melody of a piece, pulling it apart bit by bit, until only the tiniest shreds remain, then carefully reassembling it. Shipp's compositions and performances are circular in nature -- there is always a clear progression from start to finish, and back to the start again. Taylor's pieces, by contrast, seem like one-way journeys. On occasion, Taylor's compositions fail to achieve forward motion at all, and give the impression of treading water.

More interestingly, for all of Taylor's concern with creating percussive sounds on the keyboard, hammering the keys with such force it seems like they'll fly off, Shipp's music is much more rhythmic. Taylor's pieces are often quite arrhythmic; although he has worked with many of jazz's greatest drummers (Sunny Murray, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach), they often seem to be battling with him, attempting to force him back into line. Shipp, on the other hand, very much embraces rhythmic interplay. This is particularly obvious in his recordings with the David S. Ware Quartet and its drummers Whit Dickey and Guillermo Brown. Even when there is no drummer present, though, as on Zo and DNA (both duo albums with William Parker), Thesis (a duo with guitarist Joe Morris), or Strata (a record by Shipp's "Horn Quartet": trumpeter Roy Campbell, saxophonist Daniel Carter, and Parker on bass), Shipp's playing often centers on rhythm. A definite forward impetus is always present. DNA in particular is an intensely rhythmic album, with compositions like the title track and a throbbing version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" dragging the listener along like a commuter with his arm caught in a subway door. This is where Shipp's other major influences, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, are most clearly evident.

Aside from the comparisons to Taylor, the other baffling thing for Shipp is the persistent criticism that free jazz is somehow purely emotional and turbulent, without the intellectual underpinning of bop and post-bop styles. "I think this music is open to all kinds of misunderstandings," he says charitably. "Even somebody like Albert Ayler, if you really listen to his playing, it's very well thought-out, and actually quite intellectual. It's a complete system. If you listen to him just playing off the horn, and then you listen to other people doing it, you realize that the reason he's an icon is because he really had a system. There's a real intellect behind his improvising. That's obviously the case with Cecil Taylor [as well]. I mean, if somebody has longevity as an artist, it definitely means there's thought behind their work. They're not getting up there just jacking off...'Look at me, I've got these deep feelings and I'm expressing myself.' I mean, maybe part of the appeal is that [the player] is wearing his feelings on his sleeve, but that has to be translated into some kind of system or body of work that has some type of logic and therefore makes sense over a series of CDs. I don't understand that [free jazz as emotional versus intellectual music] sentiment, and I think it's a disservice to various practitioners of that art. And also, if you're going to point to what makes all of their music different, the whole Apollonian versus Dionysian [dichotomy], there's an Apollonian element in each one that makes their Dionysian frenzies different. So you know why Albert Ayler's body of work is different from Sun Ra's or Coltrane's. Even if they are all dealing in that emotional pool or whatever, there's still definitely some guiding intelligence behind all their work that allows it to continue to exist on CDs and sell because people are still interested in it, and identify it [as well], because if it was all Dionysian it would just all sound the same. I think that whole way of looking at jazz is tired, and has absolutely nothing to do with someone like myself."

Surprisingly, this misinterpretation of the music seems primarily confined to jazz critics. Rock listeners, according to Shipp, grasp the music much more quickly, in all its depth. "I think," he says, "that the people that got into us, it wasn't like they were just 'Oh wow, free jazz, noisy...' No, it really spawned a whole new generation of really bright people who could really identify what they actually liked about the music. So it wasn't just a matter of not liking certain types of rock bands, 'cause they're too poppish, so we're looking for something experimental. The people that came to us can really identify the melodic aspects of what we do that they like, and I've seen a lot of cases where people came to us first and they gave themselves a real education in jazz history really quickly, and they kind of grasped the whole thing. And that's why when you look at Down Beat [May 2000 issue] I'm one of the main features. My picture is in the table of contents. Or you took at Jazziz and William's on the cover. The jazz world has begrudgingly, even though they're condescending, had to acknowledge that we've really brought a lot of people into jazz and they're not idiots. Because the people that tend to get into us," and here he begins to laugh, "and I'm really patting ourselves on the back here, a lot of them tend to be brighter than the people who are just into jazz, who are some stupid motherfuckers."

Shipp has little patience with the jazz press. "You can pretty much every year predict at least six of the covers. Pat Metheny'll be on one, Michael Brecker'll be on, Wynton, David Sanborn ... I mean, it's a joke." He continues, "I know for a fact that those magazines don't even sell albums. I track five-star reviews all around town, and I've seen five-star, lead review albums in Down Beat not sell one album in New York that month. So what does that say? I don't know who could possibly take those magazines seriously." Even as he blasts many members of the jazz press, though (lampooning one relatively well-known critic and author in particular, who according to Shipp "hates me, like a truly passionate hatred. [But] he's been pushed into writing about me because he's a complete mercenary as a writer"), he claims to see their side; understanding, for example, why free jazz is labeled a '60s holdover while musicians still playing the bop changes of the 1950s are given a pass. "I think the logic in a critic's mind is that at least that music can be said to be functional. Like, if they're writing for a newspaper, for a daily, you tell people this is pleasant, you could go out to a club, take your date or whatever. And our music, since it's not functional in that sense, they feel a license to dig and get lazy .. where some young player on Blue Note ... I mean, what are they gonna say? I don't even subscribe to the idea that everybody should be an innovator. I mean, if somebody likes to play like Bill Evans and they do it well then more power to them. I don't want to hear it, but maybe somebody does."

Some would find it surprising that for all his success in bringing free jazz to new audiences, Shipp has never been seriously approached by any of the major record labels. "There's been word out that people have been paying attention to my career," he says, "honchos from majors who have expressed admiration, but as far as going past that, no. There's been word at certain points in my career that somebody was trying to push me on [major labels], and that they actually knew of me, liked me, and then I've met people and there's been lip service paid to my body of work." Is it because, as with rock bands, they want him to achieve a certain level of sales before scooping him up and trumpeting him as their latest "discovery"? Shipp has his doubts. "I don't even know if it's a matter of getting further in my career. Because the thing with Branford [Marsalis] and David [Ware], I mean, I remember the concert in France where he [Marsalis] heard us, and it was years before he got the job [Creative Director of Columbia Jazz-since resigned], but he came backstage and his mouth was watering then. And when he got in a position of power, he wanted to shake things up there. So it's always a question of somebody who has the will to shake things up, and actually likes the music, gets into a position of power to do it. But I don't think it's a waiting thing. I think they're too stupid to see that this period's going to make sense 20 years from now. I think most of the people at major labels are too stupid to see it. I also think that the whole major label jazz thing is crumbling anyway, completely eroding. It has no center, no vision, no life, no nothing. So l don't really wanna be there. To me it doesn't really have any relevance. The only thing that matters is that you will be in every bin in every little store, but what does that matter if there's no vision or will to present you property to the public? You can sell maybe a thousand more albums, because there's 20,000 more shipped. So you sell a thousand more albums in the short term, or maybe you get a bigger cash advance. But I'm building my career at a very slow pace with a very organic logic, and I'm very happy to be doing it that way, the way it's unfolding."

Over the past few years, Shipp has released records through three primary sources. His contract with Rollins' 2.13.61 label yielded three albums -- 2-Z (a duo with Art Ensemble of Chicago founder Roscoe Mitchell), Flow Of X and Critical Mass. He released several albums, including By The Law Of Music, The Multiplication Table, Thesis, Strata, and Gravitational Systems, through the Swiss label hat Art. And most recently, he has released DNA, Pastoral Composure and New Orbit for the New York indie-rock label Thirsty Ear. Over the years, of course, other albums have emerged on labels like Silkheart, No More Records, Cadence Jazz, and the famed German label FMP (Free Music Productions), which has released work by Cecil Taylor, Peter Brotzmann, and many other performers. One of his most interesting albums, originally released on Brinkmann Records but now reissued by hat Art, is 1993s Prism. Prism is a live trio set from the lower Manhattan performance space Roulette, featuring the trio of Shipp, Parker, and Dickey. Running roughly an hour, it consists of two pieces, titled (in typical fashion) "Prism I" and "Prism II."

Beginning with a simple, seesawing melody, "Prism I" quickly explodes into an almost swinging mode, Whit Dickey's ride cymbal and sidelong drum accents sending the trio careening forwards. Shipp keeps the piece from being entirely overtaken by sheer forward momentum, by continuing to break the melody into small, jagged shards. Parker and Dickey seem to be working on him, though, and influencing him, and soon he is creating long streams of low-end rumbles, great washes of notes which engulf the listener and make it impossible to do anything else but focus on the music, to hear where it's going to go next. "Prism II, like the second half of John Coltrane's Meditations, begins softly, with Shipp playing solo. He explores gently and carefully for a few moments, finding his way. When Dickey and Parker come in again, about four minutes into the piece, the momentum is again overwhelming and sudden. Prism is not an album commonly cited as one of Shipp's career landmarks, but it should be. It deserves much more attention than it has received to date.

One advantage to working with multiple record labels has been that Shipp's experimentalism has been allowed to flower. He changes the lineup of musicians, and the instrumentation, with virtually every album. He returns, naturally, to core groups, but never releases three piano trio records in a row, for example. The trio with Parker and Dickey appears on Circular Temple, Prism, Points, Flow Of X and Critical Mass. On Points Rob Brown plays alto saxophone, and on Flow Of X and Critical Mass the trio is joined by violinist Mat Maneri. Shipp also uses Maneri in his "String Trio" (piano, bass and violin) on By The Law Of Music, and duets with him on Gravitational Systems. Zo and DNA are duos with Parker, Sonic Explorations is a duo with Brown, and Thesis is a duo with guitarist Joe Morris. On The Multiplication Table, Susie lbarra replaces Whit Dickey as drummer. lbarra was, at the time, also drumming for the David S. Ware Quartet. On Pastoral Composure, Shipp and Parker are joined by Roy Campbell on trumpet, and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Perhaps the most unique lineup, though, appears on 1998s Strata (hat Art).

Shipp has long admired the work of the fully improvisational quartet Other Dimensions In Music. A group featuring Roy Campbell, William Parker, saxophonist Daniel Carter and drummer Rashid Bakr, ODIM has been together for nearly twenty years. During that time they have recorded only three albums; a self-titled 1988 debut for Silkheart, and two releases on Aum Fidelity -- I997s Now! and 1999s Time Is Of The Essence; The Essence Is Beyond Time, a live recording which featured Shipp as a guest. For Strata, Shipp brought in all the members of Other Dimensions save Bakr, and recorded a 14-part suite that's unlike any other jazz album, and one of his most fascinating works.

The album is clearly intended to be of a piece, as evidenced by the varying divisions of the ensemble on each track. Not everyone plays at all times. Some pieces are horn duos. Parker has a bass solo. Shipp has a piano solo. Only on one or two occasions does the full quartet play together. The piece takes an almost symmetrical form, beginning with horn duos, moving to solo bass, then a section by the full quartet, followed by a piano solo and another section played by all four musicians. The middle four tracks are, in order, a saxophone-piano duet, horns and bass without Shipp, a saxophone-bass-piano trio, and a trumpet solo. Then the pattern re-emerges, as the lineups of the first five sections are repeated, only in reverse order. The quartet as a whole reforms; Shipp takes another piano solo; the quartet plays again; Parker takes a bass solo; and Campbell and Carter, the horn players, take the ensemble, and the piece, out. Each track is superb on its own, and the suite as a whole is quite remarkable -- the absence of a primary rhythm instrument allows the lyrical potential of Shipp's cluster-bomb melodies to expand quite radically. There are many surprises on the disc. Campbell and Carter, playing together, create delicate webs of sound. Parker, on the other hand, uses his first solo to release tight, knotted sonic booms, far from his usual soulful rumble. Strata is one of Shipp's favorite albums, and one which shows quite clearly not only the depth of his musical concept, but the room for experimentation contained within it.

Lately, Shipp has talked seriously about retiring from the studio entirely. He continues to record albums, but promises this will peter out by 2001. "I'm trying to [retire]," he says. "I would like to stay out of the studio forever. I have one more album coming out on hat Art ... one more String Trio album coming out next year. But I have more stuff out than [alto saxophone and clarinet player] Eric Dolphy had in his entire career. It's like, why keep going? Why? With people slowly coming to me over the years, there's plenty of back catalog for them to absorb. I really feel like I've said what I wanted to say. I'm just really trying to get out of .. there's so many albums coming out, I just see the whole thing as like a train with no brakes. Competing for a small marketplace, the proliferation is too much too fast, and people get egos involved with it, they want every note they've ever played to be documented. For what? Why? There's a part of me that wants to do a solo album and just put it out on my own label and just sell it live with no distribution, and have nothing to do with traditional distribution of jazz, but that would be more of a marketing experiment."

While he doesn't necessarily want to release any more albums of his own music, Shipp is embarking on an enterprise possibly even more interesting in its long-range meaning. He has signed on as the curator of the Blue Series, an imprint of Thirsty Ear, which will release albums by New York's most interesting jazz musicians. So far, the series has included albums by William Parker (in a trio with Daniel Carter and Hamid Drake) and Mat Maneri (a quartet featuring pianist Craig Taborn, Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver). The inaugural volume, though, was a quartet album under Shipp's leadership, and it is the most surprising album in his discography to date.

Pastoral Composure is the most straight-ahead item in Shipp's catalog. Like the David S. Ware Quartet's Surrendered, it's a breathtaking record which, in its embrace of simple (though never simplistic) composition and Modernist concepts of beauty and melody, creates a sound-world even the most tentative listener can fearlessly enter. The transformation is apparent from the first cut. "Gesture," a throbbing Latin-tinged piece, is immediately reminiscent of "Solea," the triumphant finale to the Miles Davis/ Gil Evans album Sketches Of Spain. Roy Campbell, playing pocket trumpet and making it sound like a flugelhorn, releases long lines of heartbreaking clarity over the trio's [Shipp, Parker and Cleaver] repetitive, pulsing foundation. The third cut is a version of Duke Ellington's "Prelude To A Kiss," rendered in a significantly more respectful and traditionally beautiful manner than Shipp's wanton demolition of Gershwin's "Summertime" on Zo, or the Cubist versions of Ellington's "The 'C' Jam Blues" and "Take The 'A' Train" from The Multiplication Table.

Between "Gesture" and "Prelude To A Kiss," though, lies probably the greatest shock in all of Shipp's recorded catalog. "Visions" is a shimmering bop trio cut which dispenses with all avant-garde or 'out' touches and plays like something from a 1958 Blue Note session. Its not a betrayal of his aesthetic; its an expansion of it, filtered through a complete acknowledgement of tradition and history. And this is emblematic of every aspect of Pastoral Composure. By appearing to go backward, Shipp has in fact catapulted himself forward, past all his contemporaries and into the vanguard of current jazz composition. He has proved, unbidden, not only that he can acquit himself, but that he can and will deliver brilliant, lush music in any sub-genre of jazz, and will simultaneously shatter boundaries by force of his artistry alone. "You don't want to be predictable," Shipp says of Pastoral Composure. "If you're known for a certain thing the obvious answer in this case is to do something that maybe goes back to your roots, and therefore is organic, too, because it is a part of who you are, even though you don't usually choose to emphasize that when presenting your own personality. But since it's part of your personality, there's no feeling of trying to do something that's not honest. Am I gonna make a career of being a straight-ahead player? No. It's not what I want to do, it's not where I really think the music is, even though I like those compositions and I would perform them onstage in a set. But it just felt right ... based on the work (I've] done in the past, to add a specific chapter to the [body of work] that I think is relevant, and it opens a window to [my] vocabulary so I think people can even understand the older albums better. It's [also] a statement of maybe what we feel about how a lot of people are doing straight-ahead music today, not really doing it in a proper spirit and we are, and it's also something else to do in the studio, and that's to me what improvising is, just getting through the day. You're in the studio, how are you gonna get through these hours? I have these tunes, why not record them?"

If Pastoral Composure was in some ways a rebellious gesture, showing that Shipp can compete in the straight-ahead jazz arena, his most recent album, New Orbit, is something else again. Any attempt to map out a calculated aesthetic strategy will be stymied by this album. Roy Campbell has been replaced on trumpet by Wadada Leo Smith, but the rhythm section of William Parker and Gerald Cleaver returns. Still, though the band is nearly identical to Pastoral Composure 's, the albums could not be more different. Where Pastoral Composure was smooth and relatively easygoing, New Orbit is angular and harsh. Shipp has composed, once again, a series of variations, this time on the "Orbit" theme. The opening cut is the title track, "New Orbit," which is followed throughout the album by "Orbit 2," "3," and "4." Another theme is repeated in "Paradox X" and "Paradox Y." Other cuts bear titles like "Syntax" and "Maze Hint."

It's immediately apparent that trumpeter Smith has taken the music in a thoroughly different direction. His playing is rawer than Campbell's, relying less on streams of high notes and much more on slow, smeared runs. Behind him, Shipp offers jagged, piecemeal melodies, on "Paradox X" plucking the strings to create a harpsichord-like effect which is beautiful, but extraordinarily bleak. Parker also seems to hold himself back throughout the record. Even his bowed solo version of "Orbit 3" is oddly restrained. Normally, Parker's bowed excursions are his most ecstatic, and free, moments on his instrument. But here, his tone is somber, his notes long and mournful. It's an astonishingly beautiful, almost literally breathtaking performance. "Orbit 3" is followed by "U Feature," the only upbeat track on the record, but it doesn't offer more than a momentary respite from the subdued mood which predominates. If, indeed, Shipp intends to retire from the studio, New Orbit certainly expresses that desire. Despite its optimistic title, the entire album has the feel of a quiet, dignified farewell.
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