Matthew Shipp

Antipop Consortium VS Matthew Shipp

Like Michael Jordan, Jay-Z and Sugar Ray Leonard, pianist Matthew Shipp has hinted at retirement of sorts, only to come back strong. His next record, Equilibrium, is due on January 21st, and so the topic comes up again. "I think Equilibrium will probably be the last 'Matt Shipp CD,'" he says of his role as bandleader. "I know I've said that before, it might be true, it might not. Right now my plans are for it to be."

Such was the plan when Thirsty Ear Records brought Shipp, 41, on board to run its Blue Series imprint nearly four years ago. In that time, he's hardly been rocking chair-bound. As a leader, Shipp released Pastoral Composure with his quartet in 2000 and New Orbit a year later. The records yielded two different sides of forward-thinking jazz, the former a progressive play on more standard forms of the genre, the latter a futuristic, abstract jazz workout. The two albums did constitute a retirement of sorts, as the records were his last fully organic releases.

Since then, Shipp, the label guy, has overseen Blue Series releases by two iconoclastic free jazz figures, microtonal violinist Mat Maneri as well as bassist William Parker, who has largely anchored the free jazz movement for much of the past two decades. The series has also issued records by saxophonist Tim Berne, drum-and-bass duo Springheel Jack and turntablist DJ Spooky. And as the latter two acts have found the Blue Series creeping away from acoustic waters, so Shipp's own music has followed. Both Nu Bop and Equilibrium featured electronic programming elements paired with Shipp's jazz ensembles.

Though Equilibrium hasn't even been released, the creatively restless Shipp continues looking for tomorrow's sounds today. He says the album is part of a loose trilogy set for next year. On February 18th, he will release Anti-Pop vs. Matthew Shipp, a collaboration with progressive hip-hop ensemble Anti-Pop Consortium. And later in the year, the Blue Series will issue another free jazz/hip-hop fusion, this time pairing Shipp with former Company Flow rapper El-P.

Shipp says he had seen and met Anti-Pop's Beans around New York City years ago, but initially didn't know of the rapper's group. "He actually talked to me a few times about doing something, and I didn't really take it seriously," he says laughing. "But Beans and Priest are people I've seen at concerts, they check out a lot of jazz. We just went in and did it like a live jazz session, like we were recording that quintet in the studio. And Beans and Priest had their drum machine and a synthesizer, so they were doing some programming. They were very easy to work with. They have an understanding of jazz and they know their own language, obviously, quite well."

Whether one thinks free jazz's egg first hatched with Ornette Coleman's high profile New York City appearances or earlier, underground performances by Cecil Taylor, the umbrella under which the genre's various strands fall is a good four decades old. For Shipp, that legacy had grown a bit long in the tooth, and hip-hop has provided a new outlet. "It seems to be what the doctor ordered for me because I'm definitely trying to make my music go in a new direction," he says. "As a quote, 'classical free jazz performer,' I've done a lot of albums. This seems to be a completely fresh idiom. There have been people that combined jazz and hip-hop and stuff in the past, but I think actually trying to take the real hardcore essence of free jazz and the real hardcore essence of beats and hip-hop and organically combine them, it seems like a fresh frontier. On the face of it, free jazz and hip-hop are just things you would never consider being together. But if you really look beneath the surface, there are points where they come together."

The sad postscript to the album is that it might be the last release for Anti-Pop Consortium. The group began making noise underground in New York in 1997, and released three albums between 2000 and 2002 before calling it quits following a tour with DJ Shadow earlier this year.

For Shipp, the docket is still plenty full. Next year, he'll launch the Blue Series Continuum, which he describes as "time-conceptual CDs where there's not really a [band] leader . . . even though there kind of is." And then there's the collaboration with El-P, who stirred up a bit of buzz with Fantastic Damage earlier this year, which will be delivered next month and likely see release mid-2003.

"I'm starting to feel like a fish in water," Shipp says. "And if we can really nail it, it's kind of my world. Because no matter how original my piano language is, and the people I play with, we didn't invent free jazz. Even though our particular language is new, we're always having to deal with -- I hate to use the word -- the 'baggage' of a certain idiom. And if we can really synthesize hip-hop and free jazz, it really is our fresh world. I like that the albums aren't the straight type of narratives that you have on jazz albums, because I think it's time to define a whole new aesthetic of making a jazz album."

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