East Axis Points to a Free-Improvisational Dream Team

Matthew Shipp, Scott Robinson, Kevin Ray and Gerald Cleaver debut on Christian McBride’s label with No Subject

East Axis (Image: ESP-Disk)

The term “supergroup” is so played, a catchy go-to writer label bandied about in perpetuity. But if it’s ever retired, as it should be, the mighty East Axis has earned the right to be its be all, end all. 

That would be an impressive feat in and unto itself considering this hall of fame-level quartet made up of pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist Kevin Ray, drummer Gerald Cleaver and multi-reedist Scott Robinson is only on their second album but that’s how good they are. And that’s with Robinson (found here on tenor sax, alto clarinet, tarogato, trumpet and slide cornet) only entering the fray on No Subject, the group’s sophomore effort, stepping in to fill the big shoes left by tenor and alto saxophonist Allen Lowe who departed sometime after East Axis’s debut. 

While Lowe helped light up 2021’s exceptional Cool With That with freewheeling aplomb on its marathon-length fully-improvised pieces making for one of the best debuts of that year, No Subject manifests this visionary quartet with newcomer Robinson (credits included, but certainly not limited to, being a member of the Maria Schneider Orchestra and Mingus Big Band) as not missing a beat but as an entirely different—and revelatory—beast of an outfit. The fact that this co-operative group (all compositions are credited as a whole; there’s no “leader” here) never once played with Shipp, Ray and Cleaver as a unit until the recording date makes No Subject one for the books. 

The telepathic level and precise execution this improvisatory powerhouse demonstrates is off the scale. Gone are the odysseys found on Cool With That, swapped for a type of brevity that is no less gripping. 

The compositions may be shorter (just two of the set’s twelve pieces exceeds ten minutes) but each brim with deep-rooted melodicism and purely expressionistic passages rife with gorgeous subtlety, as heard on the Shipp and Robinson-starred album opening stunner, “At The Very Least.” The bebop-flavored earworm “I Like It Very Much” again showcases the brilliant one-two Shipp/Robinson punch while Ray and Cleaver hold the rhythmic fort. Meanwhile, the big, beefy and busy bass lines of Ray’s propel “Sometime Tomorrow” into another stratosphere.  

Each member of East Axis comes with their own distinct voice and on the colorful and detail-rich No Subject it melds together organically in an infectious way complete with a deep rapport few can touch. 

On the occasion of the album release show celebrating No Subject, which takes place this Saturday, July 8th at Joe’s Pub in New York City, The Globe chatted with Ray and Shipp about all things East Axis. Click here for tickets. 

East Axis No Subject, Brother/Mister-Mack Avenue 2023

Let’s first talk about how East Axis came together in its first iteration with Allen Lowe on alto/tenor sax. How was it that the four of you were you able to join forces?

Kevin Ray: Matt & I had been making recordings for Allen. One time as I was driving home with Matt, it came up that I’d never played with Gerald Cleaver. Matt thought Gerald and I would go well together (he was right), and that we should start a band. Since we were already working with Allen, he seemed the natural choice.


For your debut, Cool With That, the storied ESP-Disk label released it. Since then, for your second effort, you’ve hooked up with Christian McBride’s Brother/Mister Productions imprint. Is there a story behind East Axis signing with Brother/Mister? Did McBride hear the first East Axis record or maybe see you live and was like, “I need to put out the next record by these guys?” How did that all come down?

Ray: Actually, I knew that Christian was a Matt Shipp fan, so when I heard about Brother Mister, I sent some recordings to his management team, and they got back to us fairly quickly. They, and the Mack Avenue team, have been very supportive. In fact, Christian will be acting as host for our concert July 8 at Joe’s Pub.


No Subject is the newish one on Brother/Mister and it features a new member in Scott Robinson replacing Lowe. Robinson certainly brings a different dynamic/flavor/feel to the group than Lowe did; the two records are on different spectrums, at least to my ears. If you will, how would you describe the two versions of East Axis?

Ray: Cool With That is a wonderful album I’m extremely proud to have been part of, and Allen plays superbly on it. In that iteration, the rhythm section would lay down a cushion of various tonalities and directions, with Allen playing on top of it. Scott tends to get right in the middle of all of it, pulling it in different directions. To my sensibilities, at least, it makes the compositional aspect far more varied. There are so many contrasting colors on that album, it amazes me. We’re more experimental in every way, including timbrally. Scott’s a timbral master. Again, Cool With That is an exciting album, but I’m not sure how many more albums or directions we had in us.


On that note, what does Robinson bring to the East Axis table? 

Ray: The obvious thing is the vast variety of instruments he’s at home on. It’s astounding. In addition, he’s been playing with Roscoe Mitchell for years, but he’s also a great big band and trad jazz player. I keep using this word, but versatility best describes him. He’s so musical, in any setting.


VIDEO: East Axis “Untitled #4” (Live From Dizzy’s)

There seems to be a misconception (in reviews I’ve read, at least) that East Axis is compositionally-based but you’ve made it a point that everything is improvised, which is mind-blowing because the pieces on No Subject certainly have a composed feel. They don’t fall into the take-no-prisoners free jazz blowout category. The tunes on No Subject, specifically, are rooted in melodicism and are more concise than the much longer pieces on Cool With That. I think the story goes that y’all never played together as a unit before recording No Subject. Of course, the four of you are veterans and “have been around the block” but can you talk about the rapport you guys share and what makes it all click so well?

Ray: The concision on this album may have merely been a mood we were in that particular session. If you’ve seen us live, we can still do the kaleidoscopic half hour odysseys. 😉 Interestingly, we don’t talk about the music much at all. Obviously, a big part of the rapport we have is that we like and respect each other. Also, speaking from my own observation, there’s a humility in this band. It is truly leaderless, and nobody is trying to show off or dominate any particular aspect of the music. Nobody has anything to prove. On any given piece, a good idea can come from anyone, and can spark another idea from anyone else. We keep ourselves out of the way of the music. Then again, I’m aware sitting here bragging about humility pretty much negates the entire premise. 😉


Matthew, what’s your take on the East Axis dynamic?

Shipp: This group is a reset for me in some ways –always good to play with some new people and Kevin can play with such a deep beautiful jazz feel that lets my lines and chords float and find a new space — Scott has impeccable music abilities and as a chording instrument I have so much to work with going off Scott. And Scott relishes the joy of playing –it is never ever academic. Gerald and I have a deep background and it continues. 






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Brad Cohan

Brad Cohan is a music journalist in Brooklyn, NY.

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