Matthew Shipp

Spanning the Vibrations
Lyn Horton, Jazz Review

Origins originate from a phenomenon other than birth. Honing in on the phenomenon is more conceptual than descriptive. For mere mortals, the journey necessitates a ceaseless repetition of approaching how to understand the ultimate beginning of everything up to and including the self.
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And for Matthew Shipp, the means to approach this universal understanding is through the piano in the way in which he matchlessly creates sound.

To talk with Matt is to talk to a person boldly adherent to his motivation for realizing his goal in life, which is “to feel good” literally when he is playing. It is odd that he says he has a goal, for he thinks generally in non-teleological terms. He believes in the idea that he is a composite of all his own experience and of that even before he was around. He knows that the imprint of this experience directs him to build his pianistic language.

His experience is not only about his specific Black-American heritage but also is intertwined with how he appeared in the stream of evolution of everything: how his genes simply agglomerated in the progression of the making of who he actually is as an artist, a portrait of “rhythmic, harmonic and melodic shapes”, a slice off the Original Mind.

Matt maps his ethnic heritage out of his musical predilections, saying that what he answers to personally, in, for example, the piano work of Ellington, Monk, Weston, Waldron, and Tyner, becomes “academic” relative to the actual development of his own language. He “cannot escape what created” him. His response to the music these musicians produced triggered in him a process of discovery of the possibilities of how the piano can be played. These players presented “nutrition” to him. Their playing gave him “threads that he could take away and weave into his own fabric” of creation. He makes it clear that their way of thought filters through their music, not his. He “cannot be of any other mind other than his own.”

Confident in doing so since his late teens, he has successfully detached himself from his predecessors. He has successfully assimilated everything that those musicians could give him and has launched another grid system to supply food for those musicians who follow him. Matt can give you swing and abstraction, groove and disjointedness: nonetheless, seemingly scientific or dryly lyrical statements that clarify his direction and his notions of self at the time of his music’s inception.

To talk with Matt is to talk to some one high up the intellectual ladder. That ladder instantly dissolves when you recognize that you are dealing with an incontrovertible, stunning purity of thought. His religious, though agnostic, nature has led him directly to his desire to operate on a metaphysical plane. He intends that his music translate that plane into a cosmic picture “where the questions he asks evolve into answers in the soundscape”, the resultant form taken by the vibrations his instrument emanates.

The color of your music is dark and deep… I say… full of heavy-handed chords and repetitions. The reason, perhaps, Matt says, is that… “the music is like a prophecy from the Old Testament” …the music “comes from a place in the mind that can be construed as dark…the place of inquiry answers back in the darkness.”

Pervading Matt’s drive and applicable every time he plays is his participation in a singular effort--to create the universe. His creative process rests in what he dubs “The Abyss”, where there is nothing and everything simultaneously, whence radiates the source and the reflection of who he is and was and shall become. His body “disintegrates into the music.” He is controlled by his amorphous will.

He beautifully analogizes his own music-making with the grand processes of the big bang and evolution: “What’s cool about the big bang is that a singularity ejaculates into nascent nebulous gas which hardens into forms that are fluid through evolution and all built up from some type of basic building blocks which is the same process when trying to build an improv from a cell on the piano…” This task is not small, nor simple. It requires his focus, dedication and commitment to it: to convert the it-ness into sound.

Matt has recorded many times with groups as a leader. He is no different with a group than he is without a band in terms of his universe-creating tendencies. He just has to “let the people into his mind and space and time.” Within those performances, the group has to make deep, almost “telepathic” connections so that it works as “one super Mind”. The members of the band have to be “people of the same orientation” as Matt is.

He confesses that those musicians to whom he is the closest, to whom he feels like a brother, are violist, Mat Maneri, bassist, William Parker, and drummer, Gerald Cleaver. When Matt works with them, all run a parallel course so close from one musician to the other that the force uniting them is the evanescent quasi synaptic spark between the lines that set the course.

Now, at this time in his piano-playing life, “something new pushes the music…” To move from the mindset of jazz, into making music of the 21st century, demonstrates the power of “The Abyss” to widen his musical view into a panoramic span.

The cultural impact of Matt’s views indicates a shift in paradigm of how improvised music can be perceived. Improvised music can be unbound from its tether to the past; “it is booted away from preconceptions of how the musician will be influenced by anyone else.” The music becomes the unification and the dispersing of energy at any one time, the result of “freedom and letting go.”

Matt is moving into solo territory now. Matt says that he is “secure in the linear sense”… he has “trust in the resonance and meaning of the linear fragments he pulls out of the keyboard.” He doesn’t need to keep up a rapid pace anymore. He can slow down his playing---that “his musical language will treat him well”--- is his prayer.

Matt has only one thing to say when he plays. And how he says it “unfolds differently each day,” each time he sits down at the piano to play. For when he ends each piece, each session at the piano, it is as if he has constructed a mandala sand painting, and, then, with a flick of a finger, he strikes through the sand, completing the act of the ritual of making it to move on to something else. Matt has brought everything that he is to the piano and after playing, he can stand up from his deep meditation and walk away fully satisfied that he has burst through yet another coalescence of time and space and mind.

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