Matthew Shipp

ADAM SHATZ , The New York Times

THE EARLY 1990's, MATTHEW SHIPP began to achieve recognition as a most significant pianist in avante-garde jazz since Cecil Taylor - but not in the quarters one might have expected. Long before Downbeat discovered Mr. Shipp, he was receiving acclaim in experimental rock magazines like Sonic Death and Forced Exposure. Some jazz musicians might have recoiled from the rock under- ground's embrace. Not Mr. Shipp. He had courted this audience for some time.

"Nobody grows up in a jazz household anymore," said Mr. Shipp, 37. "You need to think about where your listeners are going to come from 20 years down the line."

Along with the saxophonist David S. Ware, the bassist William Parker and the guitarist Joe Morris, Mr. Shipp seeks to woo alternative-rock devotees who have little knowledge of jazz but who do have an abundant tolerance for the noise and dissonance that jazz and rock share at their most experimental outer edges. Recording mainly for underground rock labels, these musicians have promoted their work through channels overlooked by more traditional jazz artists: college radio stations, small record stores and rock clubs. Their aggressive incantatory work is increasingly being marketed as ecstatic music, a term coined to evoke the rave culture's- drug of choice, ecstasy, as well as Eastern trance.

Mr. Shipp's allegiances to underground rock are hard to glean from listening to his work, which encompasses 11 albums under his own name as well as several recordings with Mr. Ware's free-jazz quartet. Unlike the jazz musicians of the late 60's who tried to win over rock fans with clanging guitars and funk vamps, Mr. Shipp doesn't adapt his sound to pop expectations. On a recent recording of Duke Ellington's "Solitude," he brings an edgy insouciance reminiscent of punk, and he is capable of pop theatrics in concerts like pounding the keyboard until the strings break. Yet his style -- a distinctive combination of Mr. Taylor's percussive attack and Chopin's languid rubatos - is more likely to invite comparison to contemporary chamber music than alternative rock. Indeed, Mr. Shipp, a former student at the New England Conservatory, draws such comparisons himself, acknowledging Anton Webern and Pierre Boulez as important, influences.

But despite his high-art ambitions, Shipp's target audience is clearly young people. "When we're up there digging into our instruments and sweating to create beauty, it's something that youth can relate to," he said over drinks recently at the,. Avenue B Social Club, a lounge on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. (He lives in a nearby apartment with his wife, Delia. Scaife, an Irish pop singer.)

At the same time, Mr. Shipp dismisses the idea of collaborating with rock musicians. As he coyly put it, "I'm no being a crossover artist."

Still he's betting that the grotty do-it-yourself tactics that catapulted indie rock from garages to major labels can do the same for jazz. Like Wynton Marsalis, he recognizes that jazz musicians need to widen their their audience beyond the music's mostly aging fans. But where Mr. Marsalis has taken jazz to the concert hall, Mr. Shipp hopes to carve out a niche for it at spots like the Avenue B Social Club.

And rather than booking gigs at a select group of clubs, Mr. Shipp prefers to rough it. Faithful to the "get in the van" motto of the punk rocker Henry Rollins, Mr. Shipp makes a point of hitting obscure venues, from grungy bars to Unitarian churches, in towns seldom visited by jazz musicians. Last year, during a three-week, cross-country tour with Mr. Parker, the bassist, Mr. Shipp opened for the band Rusted Shut before a crowd of noise rockers at Mary Jane's a grimy joint in Houston. "We did it the way Black Flag did," Mr. Shipp declared, referring to Mr. Rollins' legendary punk group. "That's my model."

Mr. Rollins is, in fact, more than a model; until Mr. Shipp signed a six-record deal last year with Hat Art, a Swiss jazz imprint, Mr. Rollins was his producer. After learning, in 1992, that Mr. Rollins was an admirer of the saxophonist Charles Gayle, Mr. Shipp mailed Mr. Rollins a copy of "Circular Temple," an album he had released on a vanity label. Not long afterward, Mr. Rollins reissued the recording on his own label, Infinite Zero, then recorded Mr. Shipp's next four albums on 213, another Rollins imprint.

How did it feel to appear on hard-core labels? Mr. Shipp's reply was characteristically opaque. "It just made intuitive sense to me," he said.

Craig Koon, the founder of Rise Records, which produced one of Mr. Shipp's first records, has an explanation for his nonchalance: "Matthew has always had the attitude that it doesn't matter what label your music is on, so long as it's not being pigeonholed." Indeed, Mr. Shipp viewed working with Mr. Rollins as a rare opportunity to be heard in places where most jazz musicians aren't. "If you present jazz as a fossilized piece of art, you only alienate young people," he said.

A gangly, affable man who wears horn-rim spectacles and casual black clothes, Mr. Shipp is as much a child of pop as of jazz. Coming of age in a suburb of Wilmington, Del., he said, he "led a double life: going to rock concerts and smoking pot with my friends and listening to Coltrane at home." Settling in the East Village in the early 80's, Mr. Shipp soaked up the ambience around the alternative-rock scene. Thurston Moore, the lead guitarist of Sonic Youth, who first saw him perform in 1990, recalled: "The cool thing about Matthew was that he didn't have the historical baggage that a lot of the older free-jazz guys had. It was, like, we watched the same television shows growing up."

While it's far from clear that the rock underground can raise the profile of free jazz, the crowds that turn out for Mr. Shipp's concerts are a hopeful sign. "I see the same people showing up for Matthew's gigs as for Merzbow, the noise-assault guy from Japan," said Mr. Moore. "They too at free jazz as something that can't be co-opted by 'the man.' " Ecstatic music sounds fresh and unvarnished, he said, to listeners alienated by the mainstream success of independent rock.

"One of the coolest things I've seen," said Mr. Koon, who also runs Sound Exchange a record store in Austin, Tex., that specializes in alter- native rock, "is kids with army back- packs and skateboards under their arms coming in to buy free jazz. To them it's just high-energy music that they like to skate to. They listen to Matthew and David S. Ware, and it's often on the same tape as punk rock. To them it's a seamless whole rather than two things that don't go together."

is Mr. Shipp alarmed by the idea that his music could supply the soundtrack for skateboarding or raving? Mr. Shipp shrugs off these concerns before unveiling another of his crossover visions.

"I'd to be like Glenn Gould, who put out lots of recordings but stopped playing in concert," he said. "Glenn Gould, by the way, admires Petula Clark and Cecil Taylor. He had a very pop mentality, and I think I do, too."

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