Matthew Shipp

Harmony & Abyss
Colin Buttimer, The Milk Factory

There’s a chiming quality to the opening track on Matthew Shipp’s new album that evokes images of halls of mirrors, shiny surfaces, moments in time caught unexpectedly in the butterfly net of a computer. The whole of this remarkable track (Ion) suggests a relationship to the final scene of Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey where David Bowman arrives in an 18th century room and encounters other versions of himself. There’s a similar sense of the familiar become unfamiliar.

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The next track, New ID, opens with an acoustic piano figure accompanied by multiple, clattering drums and William Parker’s muscular bass. It’s a busy tussle with no one coming out a clear winner, except the listener that is. Shipp’s playing shuffles a number of cards, a particular musical phrase on each plays its turn out only to be replaced by another, though it may turn up again at any point later on. Shipp’s acoustic piano throughout Harmony & Abyss is dark, meaty, salty. It’s as though he’s making pacts with his fellow players to create especially dramatic music: he’s trailed and shadowed by them, parrying their thrusts and sometimes following their lead.

Shipp is always at the centre of the dark forest that grows from his piano. On Virgin Complex, Shipp is circled by Parker’s bass and phased, shaken percussion. As the music travels forwards it loses its initial certainty and becomes increasingly attenuated; in its dying moments it seems to hover and fly upwards. Galaxy 105 comes on like a funky jam for a noir film, all popping bass and tinkling, out piano thrashed this way and that by Cleaver’s accelerating snares. String Theory is spooked by a distant industrial pulse rendered in white noise while all around it torn remnants of melody and sound flutter. Blood 2 The Brain delivers impressively funky beats and bass on a parallel course to Shipp’s voyaging narrative.

There are strains of classical-orientation in Shipp’s playing, but they’re married surprisingly successfully to Gerald Cleaver’s and FLAM’s funky beats. There’s also a distinct sense of structure, of the ensemble focusing upon points of compression and release at throughout each composition. Harmony & Abyss is Shipp’s first release as leader since last year’s Equilibrium and it represents a significant development from the rather low-key and slightly too cautious feel of that album.

This new instalment in Shipp’s electric odyssey is a force to be reckoned with, something that can confidently take its place alongside recent European hybrids of jazz and popular forms such as breakbeat, techno, ambient, etc. Harmony & Abyss engages with the heritage of modern jazz but recognises that to survive it must adapt. There are whole vital histories which jazz’s roving spirit can enrich itself with and Shipp and his group convincingly explore this potential with Harmony & Abyss.

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