Matthew Shipp calls this release for Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series “a synthesis of what I’ve learned from all my other Blue Series albums.” In many ways, it does seem to represent a bit of a consolidation after the very modern way forward demonstrated on Shipp’s previous album, Nu Bop.
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Shipp claims that this recording, while it continues to explore the fusion of new beat and DJ elements with the language of modern jazz, also works to develop a “jazz ambient music” as well as exploring the elasticity of the music’s very language.
Given that explanation and the evidence from such other Blue Series projects involving Shipp as Spring Heel Jack’s Amassed and DJ Spooky’s Optometry, I would have to say that Shipp has achieved his goals on this recording very well.
The very goal of the Blue Series was to create and explore a signature sound, much the way that ECM records did starting in the 1970s. Like ECM, the music of the Blue Series is sometimes quiet, often much more like chamber music than the music of any mainstream jazz combo or big band.
That is not to say that the music of either label does not explore less-than-pastoral sounds or that the music is not challenging; on the contrary, it is sometimes maddeningly so. Both labels are also often saddled with the observation that a great deal of the music performed by their artists is not jazz at all, even when the artists in question are jazz trained and jazz oriented.
But the Blue Series has always had, as one of its goals, the creation of a new language for improvising musicians, one that fuses straight ahead and free jazz with a digital aesthetic. The result is neither fish nor fowl, and it is the music that is most purely described as jazztronica.
While Equilibrium isn’t as surprisingly new as Nu Bop, it does seem to find a way to integrate its various components more organically than Shipp has managed previously, as though all the sounds and elements here were bacteria thrown into a petri dish and allowed to create its own ecosystem—to find its own equilibrium, in other words.
The addition of vibraphonist Khan Jamal, who is wonderfully inventive, adds a great deal to the overall sound of Equilibrium, giving the ensemble a certain coolness that offsets Shipp's relentless driving and drummer Gerald Cleaver's effective bop-meets-beats drumming on "Vamp to Vibe," the album's second track.
Shipp has other goals in mind besides mixing DJ beats with free jazz: "I am also bringing to bear on this project, the goals I had on New Orbit of developing a jazz ambient music and my original goals on Pastoral Composure of exploring the elasticity of the jazz language when straight ahead jazz elements morph organically into more modern forms."
And so we get the meditative title track on which Shipp plays with a variety of themes and freely improvises, sounding like Keith Jarrett on some of his projects. He is accompanied by Jamal, Cleaver, and bassist William Parker, all of whom move in their own patterns and weave around and through Shipp's playing like some kind of free, contrapuntal New Orleans band (conceptually, not soundwise), culminating in Shipp's minor cadence that seems to lead directly into the straight rock rhythms of "Vamp to Vibe."
That segues very neatly into the very ambient opening of "Nebula Theory," all cymbals, tom-toms, vibes, and various percussion instruments until Parker's singing bowed bass begins to assert itself. With a third of the album gone at this point, who could say which of these is the straight ahead jazz piece? We feel that we've heard jazz, but also something like classical, rock, and avant-garde. Shipp borrows from all of these forms, and others as well, breaking down their language into elements and then reassembling those elements into something not-quite-familiar yet not without precedent.
Equilibrium does a good job of summing up the various stages that Matthew Shipp's journey through the Blue Series has taken. What's been particularly gratifying is the way that he has been able to follow his artistic muse on his own recordings while collaborating with such varied artists as Spring Heel Jack, DJ Spooky, and Antipop Consortium on the other recordings in the series.
As long as Shipp and his cohorts are around, jazz seems to be in solid hands.
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