By Kate Wharton, Straight No Chaser
New York city based Matthew Shipp Is equally at home at the Knitting Factory or playing with Spring Heel Jack and the cream of Europe's Improvising scene or working with the hip hop heavyweight El-P or Anti Pop Consortium. Through his own imprint via Thirsty Ear he has unleashed the excellent Nu-Bop and Equilibrium albums. Welcome to the story so far.
Everything Matthew Shipp does is extremely authentic and distinct, he's almost spiky and obstinate in his commitment to the purest jazz quest -- the search for Universal Sound -- yet he looks very sheepish when he removes his jumper and is found to be wearing a worn out Buffy t-shirt. He is very gentle in person with a quiet and quick voice that accidentally disguises his strength of mind and resoluteness. In recordings, he couldn't be more forceful and he seems to be at the peak of his powers with 'Equilibrium' -- an album that reaches into the depths of the piano for some stormy grooves and also incorporates subtle beats and electronics. This album was born amidst a rush of collaborations with Anti Pop Consortium, DJ Spooky and Spring Heel Jack. It is one of only a handful of truly balanced and imaginative jazz-programming crossovers. Matthew Shipp was granted the freedom to take so many risks when he was hired by Thirsty Ear to curate his own jazz label subsidiary called the Blue Series. Chaser met up with him to talk about life in New York as an outsider artist, music mogul and jazz mystic.
KW: How did you move from pure free jazz to working with beat programmers and MCs?
MS: I am a big fan of dance music and I've been living in New York since 1982. When I first moved to the city I used to go out dancing every night. So I've always listened to the rhythms and imagined what I could do with them. It's always been part of my fantasy world. Back in the eighties I was going to clubs a lot, mainly to meet women, I was hanging out at discos to five and six every night and I was listening to this stuff thinking 'Wow!' Some of this stuff is more abstract than jazz'. There was a Salt n' Pepper track, I was listening to the backing track and thinking 'This is really out!' Dance music can be less conservative then jazz, because jazz in all its abstractions can be extremely conservative. At one time jazz was dance music and we can never get away from that no matter how abstract and heady it gets it's not any better than it was when it was dance music and in fact may be worse. The interesting thing is that the artists I've collaborated with -- Spring Heel Jack, Anti Pop and DJ Spooky are all huge free jazz fans. In the spirit of sampling they feet like they need to know all information and free jazz is like a vortex of information.
How did William Parker, your long term bassist, find playing hip hop, after spending most of his early career working with Cecil Taylor?
I remember we were on one tour and our bus driver was playing the Dr Octagon LP and I become a huge Kool Keith fan, but William was having some problems with ii He has learnt through his kids, to slowly start to appreciate some hip hop. it's surprising though -- he can really play with beats welt even though he is the quintessential free jazz bass player. He has a good feet for it, maybe because in his early days he played a lot of R&B. I'm talking in the 50s I have an album with El-P that about to come out and William really enjoyed that session. It's really fresh for us play this sort of music.
How did you hook up with Antipop?
Beans used to work at Other Music, a store in New York, so I used to see him there behind the counter and I didn't even know he was in a rap group. He used to always be talking about us doing a collaboration and I was thinking to myself 'Yeah, right Then I heard he was in Anti Pop and I finally took him seriously. Anti Pop came in the studio with us and they had their own drum machine and their own engineer. They had some exact ideas for some vamps and Beans would sing it to us and Priest had his synth and some pods so he could jam with us. They also used us as source material. I didn't know they were in the process of breaking up. It was actually a very difficult process to put the album together because soon after the studio session there was no central command and the whole process of communicating with them as a group become very discombobulating. Priest come back with some tracks that were really good but it wasn't enough for an album so we had to get another session together. Beans and Priest didn't want to work in the studio together again. So Beans come through on his own with a drum machine, he set up some bents and he rapped live. He brought his little notebooks and he would hear what we were doing and then took through his notebooks to see what he felt fit. This part of the album is a lot more raw and we were really quite free with it.
You have a Lot of freedom to chose the work you want to record because of your position as the curator of your own label, the 'Blue Series'. How did you get this opportunity?
In the early nineties there was a tendency for punk labels to get into promoting free jazz and I was signed by Henry Rollin's record label 2-13-61. Then that become inactive and Peter Gordon signed me to Thirsty Ear which involves people from Robert Wyatt to Brian Eno. He is a jazz fan and he wanted to start a jazz [abet so he asked me to be curator. Originally we wanted to find free jazz artists and then pro- mote the lyrical aspects of their playing, we were going to be like ECM in the later 60s. The electronic collaborations, for which the label has now become known, happened by accident. Spring Heel Jack were on the label and I found out that they were huge jazz fans, so we worked- together on their album 'Massed' and that was when the idea of doing crossovers started. My own albums 'Nu Bop' and 'Equilibrium' use a lot of beats. l am an electronic idiot so on my own album I work with Flynn.
What styles of music, other than jazz and dance music, influenced you when you were growing up?
I listened to a tot of gospel. My album DNA has a version of 'Amazing Grace'. I grew up as an Episcopalian, because my parents were but then my grandmother was Baptist and I went to her church to soak in the gospel music and I played for a gospel choir at my grandmothers church. It was something I did among many things. But I also listened a tot to Ray Charles, you don't think of him as a jazz pianist but some of his early work has a real Horace Silver bent to it. Growing up I was a big fan of that Aretha Franklin gospel album. I had some Mahalia Jackson albums. I guess gospel music, was a big influence,
But free jazz was always most important to you, even when you were young?
I remember my first exposure to the jazz avant-garde. I understood it before I understood bebop, I remember hearing Charlie Parker and thinking this is from Mars. But then when I heard certain Coltrane or Cecil Taylor I was right at home. I don't know why that is -- the jazz avant garde can be forbidding but for some people it is home. When I was about 13 years old I read 'Chasin' The Trane,' the biography of Coltrane, and even at that age I started really trying to get into the mind of Coltrane. I grew up in Wilmington Delaware which is 20 minutes away from Philadelphia by train and Coltrane lived in Philly for a big part of his life and I knew a lot of people who played with him. I also studied with Coltrane's teacher, David Sandole. He was a composition theory teacher in Philly. And I went through a lot of the some books as Coltrane.
How did you first hear about Sun Ra?
Sun Ra lived in a suburb of Philadelphia and I met a lot of people when I was just a young teenager who had come through his band. The whole mythology of Sun Ra is a huge thing for black jazz musicians in that area. The archetype that Sun Ra deals with is that of the secretive black scientist in Atlantis, his music is communicating with cosmic energies that he as a musician / mathematician can cohere as a mystery language. Sun Ra's music is a black mystery language. His way of living and playing music required some visionary capacity. He has always been a major part of my cosmos in a lot of ways. Also I've always felt myself that I was an outsider and he is the ultimate outsider in jazz. I could talk for hours about him. I really imbibed that whole world early. I got a sense of it and by the time I was 15 or 16 .
Does Sun Ra stilt inspire your music?
Yes! The thing about Sun Ra that is interesting is that he has touched on the whole history of musical invention. If you listen to all his albums from the 50's to the 90's he is as close to a universal musician as there is. You could listen to an eight second introduction to one of his songs and if you have a fertile imagination it could spark a whole universe. Also his music definitely has its healing qualities have you heard that saying that a musician is a physician of the muse? Music can be like massage, it can help attune the brain waves to the good energies that exist in the universe.
Does jazz have a natural affinity with mysticism?
I've studied mysticism. I've spent my time on Hinduism. I used to be a practitioner of Siddha yoga. There is a famous guru, Muktananda, who brought it to the West. I am not going to say he was a fraud but he possibly might hove been a little corrupt. Nitinanado was his guru and I consider him to be my guru because I had this mystical experience where I saw him and he touched my head once. I was always interested in Kundalini yoga because it has a lot in common with Christian mysticism in terms of the awakening of the Holy Spirit or the dove rising through the Chakras. I grew up Christian and still my sense world is Christian even though I am not a practicing Christian in the traditional sense. Christian mysticism and the whole symbology behind it is something I am realty involved with, I am realty involved win the works of Meister Eckhart, Emerson, Immanuel Swedenburg and stuff like the like the way Eckhart deals with Christianity in such a beautiful naturalistic way incarnation but then so is everything and everyone I consider myself in the tradition of jazz mystics. Coltrane and Sun Ra inspired my work from the beginning a realty appreciate the seriousness of their quest to cohere universal energy into sound.
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