Matthew Shipp
The Sorcerer Sessions
John Chacona, One Final Note

Anyone looking for evidence of the imminent demise of improvised music as a recorded art form had better walk briskly past the climbing stack of CDs with the chic blue spine. Whatever you think of the music on Thirsty Ear's Blue Series (and I think it ranges from the brilliant to the not-so-special), you have to admire the audacity of the concept and the commitment with which it is brought off.
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By now, the Blue Series story is familiar: Former Black Flag singer Henry Rollins, a closet avant-garde jazz fan, released a couple of CDs by pianist Matthew Shipp on his 2.13.61 label. When Rollins closed his label, Thirsty Ear—the underground rock imprint that had been his distributor—signed Shipp and made him the curator and artistic director of the Blue Series. Thirsty Ear label head Peter Gordon said of the project, "We wanted to mediate and bring different types of people together".

At first those people were limited to Shipp and his associates in William Parker's circle of downtown NYC players, but that has recently broadened to include DJs from both sides of the Atlantic and experimenters in electronica and related genres.

With Sorcerer Sessions, Shipp takes these recent directions and folds them back upon the style of playing in evidence on those two CDs issued by Henry Rollins: a dark, dense and somber piano sound of almost classical rigor and seriousness. In a way, Sorcerer Sessions is the Blue Series in microcosm, simultaneously looking back at Shipp's roots and forward to the label's new direction.

This dualism extends to the two pairs of players on the session. Drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Parker are longtime Shipp associates. From the classical world (such as it is), come Bang On A Can clarinetist Evan Ziporyn and violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain. Mediating between the two camps, FLAM (who programmed beats on Shipp's Nu Bop and Equilibrium) adds an ambient wash and cinematic grandeur with his programming and synths.

The first two cuts neatly set forth Shipp's thesis. The opening "Pulsar" rings with churchy block chords. It's a simple chorale theme before Shipp gathers the disparate strands of improvisation, ambient sounds and ECM-ish holy minimalism into a three-voice, postmodern polyphony of idioms on the eleven tracks that follow.

"Keystroke", the second cut, begins with the sound of computer keys clicking. When Shipp makes his entrance, it's in a cloud of ambience. Thesis and antithesis. Anguished string sawing, moody, inside-the-piano abstraction, a little bop by way of Keith Jarrett and snare drum tattoos complete the synthesis.

It's not feel-good stuff by any means, but Shipp, a noted boxing fan, isn't a jab-and-stay-away kind of guy. He's a musical heavyweight who won't duck a challenge. The Blue Series is his fight card and this fascinating CD is near the top.

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