The master pianist defines jazz productivity with a quartet of essential new albums
Pianist Matthew Shipp has been at the forefront of free jazz and improv since he joined David S. Ware’s famous quartet in the early 90s.
He’s built up a massive discography both as a leader and sideman and has developed a unique and commanding voice on the piano. He is currently releasing a flurry of four albums that display his mastery in a variety of contexts.
First up is the album Cool with That by the group East Axis, which came out on July 2nd on ESP-Disk. Here, Shipp is joined by Allen Lowe on tenor and alto sax, Kevin Ray on bass, and Gerald Cleaver on drums. This was followed shortly by “Reels”, a duo recording with drummer Whit Dickey that came out on July 23rd courtesy of Burning Ambulance Records. Next up is the album Village Mothership. This finds him reunited with his David S. Ware Quartet bandmates William Parker on bass and once again, Whit Dickey on drums. This album dropped October 15th on Dickey’s TAO Forms records. These releases are rounded out by a solo piano album called Codebreaker, also due out on TAO Form records on November 5th.
Whether new to Matthew Shipp or a longtime fan, these releases provide the listener with an opportunity to understand Shipp’s playing in different contexts. What is consistent across these recordings and what changes? How does he respond to those around him?
Artist: East Axis
Album: Cool With That
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
The appropriately titled “A-Side”, which opens the East Axis record, is a great place to start. The tune starts slowly, allowing the members of the group to get familiar with each other. Shipp interjects note clusters here and there, prodding the ensemble to coalesce around his piano. When things get properly moving, it is Cleaver’s drums and Kevin Ray’s bass that give the music its sense of motion, but Shipp constructs a complex harmonic architecture that provides the core. He covers a vast amount of sonic space with his piano, often playing slowly-evolving arpeggios while accenting these with his off-hand. And while ostensibly being free jazz, rarely do his choices sound purposely discordant, although he does occasionally give a blast of Cecil Taylor-style bass notes to provide emphasis to a passage. It’s Allen Lowe’s saxophone that darts furthest in and out of conventionality providing a wonderful sense of tension to the piece.
Matthew Shipp maintains this central role throughout most of Cool with That. He speeds up to match the controlled chaos of “Oh Hell I Forgot That” and slows down into the darker “Social Distance”. At times his runs are reminiscent of a modern-day McCoy Tyner, Schipp’s phrasing seeming just a bit more modern. But through it all, he is the gravity and the density of the ensemble, the key element that pulls the other voices into coherence.
The album culminates with a nearly thirty-minute piece simply titled “One”. It begins with the group firing on all cylinders, sounding like a hard bop quartet that has decided to jettison all the rules they used to follow. Once again, Cleaver and Ray establish a great sense of momentum, and Shipp drapes all kinds of harmonic complexities onto their rhythmic skeleton. The piano seems more turbulent than before, but the instrument’s sense of gravity remains. The saxophone pokes and prods the others, but this time Shipp answers Lowe’s maneuvers with equally darting figures. Around the halfway point, Shipp falls into a conversation with Cleaver and Ray. While there is meaning in his harmonic choices, he seems to be exploring his rhythmic identity in conjunction with the drums and bass. The passage is fascinating and ultimately proves to be a preview of Reels, his album with Whit Dickey.
Artist: Cat Matthew Shipp / Whit Dickey
Label: Burning Ambulance
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
Reels plays out as inverse to Ornette Coleman’s early records. Coleman removed the piano from his group to give harmonic freedom to the players. On Reels, all but the drums and piano are dispensed with allowing their voices to be placed in the forefront. It’s as if Whit Dickey and Matthew Shipp have walked away from a party to have a deep and private conversation.
The emphasis of the duo seems to lean towards rhythm here but not in an overt way. This is free jazz after all. Dickey and Shipp find pulses and beats, improvises around them yet quickly move on to keep exploring. It’s often difficult to see who generates a particular musical idea, rather they cultivate the material together.
“Cosmic Train” displays the duo’s agility and quick movements. The opening seconds contain a sprightly interjection that almost nods to the classic Billy Strayhorn tune “Take the A Train”. But this only lasts a moment and is implied and not overtly stated. From here, Shipp pounds out thunderous low-end chords prodding Dickey into action. They spar back and forth, finding pulses and rhythms, examining them, and then abandoning them. Halfway through the piece, they find a particularly intriguing beat and linger there a bit longer. Here both the piano and drums thunder together. If Strayhorn’s song tried to imitate the tempo of the New York subway, Shipp and Dickey conjure the immense power of a freight train.
“Hold Tight” is a more pugilistic affair. The two players possess a telepathic sense of communication but they dance around each other. This tune is less about working together directly but instead engaging in a push-pull, each instrument reacting to the other in an almost confrontational manner. Meanwhile, “Moon Garden” is much more sparse. Yet the sonic field isn’t skeletal. Shipp uses the length of his keyboard for his ever-evolving harmonic structures and Dickey alternates between cymbals and toms to cover both the lows and the highs.
Perhaps the album’s highlight is “Vector”, the most rhythmically engaging piece. Despite the freedom of the music on Reels, the piano usually doesn’t sound incoherent or jarring, but on this song, Shipp pushes the limits of conventional harmony. He does this with a constant and insistent pulse, a constant stream of notes that almost become an ostinato figure except that they are always morphing into another shape. Dickey propels the piece forward with his drums, pushing the implied beat to the fore. The latter half of “Vector” builds the intensity even further, as if that aforementioned train is threatening to come right off the tracks.
Artist: Whit Dickey / William Parker / Matthew Shipp
Album: Village Mothership
Label: TAO Forms
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
Village Mothership finds Shipp and Dickey joined by bassist William Parker, Shipp’s former bandmate in the seminal David S. Ware Quartet. All three of these players are familiar with each other and the entire record possesses a sense of hard-earned mastery.
“A Thing & Nothing” begins the record with a constantly metamorphosing structure and feel. Despite the tune’s amorphous nature, nothing feels frantic or rushed. Every note is where it should be and each instrument proceeds with a clear sense of direction and purpose. There’s a calmness and confidence and when they fall into lockstep, the material almost sounds composed even if we know otherwise. “Whirling in the Void” follows and is more dense, largely because Shipp inserts himself with the same sense of gravity that made his role on the EastAxis so vital.
Much of the album oscillates between the egalitarian feel of the aforementioned “A Thing & Nothing” and the Shipp-centric approach of “Whirling in the Void”. Either way, it’s a wonderful recording. It’s not like Dickey and Parker are novice players overwhelmed by Shipp’s playing. They are certainly complicit in this music. The title track might be that highlight here, and at eleven-plus minutes it gives the trio a chance to explore both approaches. After a short solo drum intro, Shipp leads the charge with an awe-inspiring piece of piano playing. This is the densest moment on all these records, almost rivaling doom metal in the tectonic weight of his playing. Yet “Village Mothership” constantly changes and becomes more delicate as the piece continues. Each player takes turns leading the song, with Parker and Shipp especially trading the tune’s navigation. It’s a masterclass in modern Improv, absolutely essential.
It seems appropriate that the last of these albums finds Matthew Shipp performing solo. Codebreaker is a revelation, an opportunity to see his artistic vision stripped bare. There is no one to react to but himself. Because of this, much of Codebreaker has a much more song-like quality than most free jazz group recordings.
Artist: Matthew Shipp
Label: TAO Forms
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
That’s not to say things don’t get complex and challenging. “Spiderweb” sounds like its name, Shipp’s improvisations are rhizomatic, deftly pursuing multiple ideas at once. The strong chord punctuations on “Code Swing” imply he might just start to swing, but it’s all smoke and mirrors.
The various phrases just build tension. Release comes from the tune unraveling slowly rather than finding the beat. Perhaps the most rhythmically intriguing piece is “Stomp to the Galaxy”. There’s a logic at work here that seems just out of reach, like some sort of musical chaos theory. The darting figures possess the physicality of a rhythm without any steady meter, rather it sounds like a system derived from the random pattern of raindrops.
In the context of these four albums, Codebreaker is like a monologue that can bring expanded meaning to a conversation. Here, we hear Shipp’s true voice which only amplifies his role in other contexts. And believe it or not, these four albums are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Matthew Shipp’s intimidating discography. What we can discern though is that he is a master.
Whether playing loud or soft, in the forefront or deftly accompanying his cohorts, his presence on any record demands to be reckoned with. And for any true fan of this music, his work cannot be ignored.