Talking Clifford, Crouch and a career entering its 5th decade with the maestro of NYC piano jazz
Today is the 60th birthday of Matthew Shipp, one of the great innovators of jazz piano in the last 40 years.
However, the Delaware-born composer has been celebrating this milestone all throughout 2020, not only recording one of the finest albums he’s crafted with his longtime trio of Michael Bisio on double bass and drummer Newman Taylor Baker in The Unidentifiable but a stellar new solo album The Piano Equation as well. Plus, he’s appeared on no less than four additional albums released across this year, including recordings with such saxophone titans as Rob Brown, Rich Halley and frequent collaborator Ivo Perelman.
As a music writer, I’ve been covering Mr. Shipp since I began working at CMJ in the late 90s. Listening to his work across these last 23 years has been so critical in my own education as someone who was relatively new to jazz appreciation when I graduated from college. This interview was conducted via email and instant messenger over the course of this past year, where we cover the entirety of his career now entering a fifth decade in performance.
And given how 60 is the new 40 and all that, I look forward to the years of innovation in composition to come from this guy. Happy Birthday, Mr. Shipp!
Seems to me that despite what a messed up year this has been you’ve had a pretty busy 2020 thus far. Was that by design or coincidence?
Work work work is the mantra of the day. Nothing is by design and everything is by design. But basically I deal with what is before me –and I always try to have something before me.
I’m really loving The Unidentifiable, especially the melodic nature of these compositions. What attributed to the direction of this record?
It is the next phase of where the trio can go –and I am always building to that synthesis of what could be my best trio work which is inspired by all the piano trio music I love like Bud Powell—Bill Evans –and Paul Bley. But always being Matthew Shipp.
I’d also like to mention how crisp and up front the recording of The Unidentifiable is, which is clearly a testament to the work of our pal (and Rock & Roll Globe correspondent) Steve Holtje. What do you feel Steve brings to the table as a producer? Also how far do you guys go back?
I’ve known Steve since the early 90s. As a music writer he was an early champion of my work including my first CD Circular Temple. He is also an overall great guy and someone who is really honest and who you can trust –which is a needed quality in this business. The thing about Steve is he is an omnivorous music consumer and an encyclopedia so I can discuss many concepts with him and he gets every nuance of what I am getting at and all of the associations . But he gives the artists pretty much complete freedom as well.
I love the track you contributed to Phil Freeman’s compilation on BandCamp. “Staircase”. Can you tell me a little about what inspired that choice for the Burning Ambulance compilation and your thoughts on the good work Phil is doing to give back to the jazz community.
Whit and I recorded a duo CD for ESP records. We had a lot of studio time—we went in numerous times before we got the duo project where we wanted it to be. But we had a lot of good material we never used-so we used one of those tracks —Phil is a one of a kind type person who if he did not exist you would have to invent him. He will make his mark however he decides to do it.
I know you were pretty vocal about your viewpoint of Stanley Crouch in lieu of his recent passing. What was the rub with him?
My animus with Crouch is personal — he has physically threatened me in the past . As a whole my relationship with journalists has been very good . Most are big fans of the music who are doing what they can to make the public aware of the work . Lord knows the music needs to be given a platform out here in the world . Crouch is a very special type of sick asshole who I don’t even think of under the umbrella of jazz writer.
What have you been digging this year? Is there anything you’ve been listening to outside of jazz?
Wow—not really listening a lot. Just listened to some pygmy music. That is some of the purist music on the face of the earth. The world is so out of balance that I’ve been spinning some Sun Ra to help put it back in balance. Got to hear some Bird every once in a while. I agree with Basquiat— if I don’t hear some Charlie Parker I can go crazy. But speaking of Basquiat I have had a lot of nostalgia for the 1980s –when I was in my 20s and out on the New York club scene every night dancing in the clubs—clubs like The Pyramid Club, ’Danceteria, etc, etc. So as far as that goes been listening to a lot of freestyle music that was on the dance floor in the 80s along with some euro synth pop that existed side by side with freestyle on the dance floor back then. I love that period.
VIDEO: Danceteria on Night Flight (1982)
I’d love to hear about your very first gig in New York City. Where did you perform and who was on the bill with you?
My first gig in New York was at a place called the ‘’University of the Streets’’ –which used to have jam sessions with a lot of older bebop cats. But they let us do a concert there. It was me, Rob Brown on alto and and a drummer named Frank Bamnara. I think it was in 1984. We were the only ones on the bill.
Your mom was friends with Clifford Brown. Did she have a favorite story about him you can share? Its hard to think he was only 25 years old when he died. He was just a kid.
My mother was friends with Clifford Brown –they grew up on the same block and went to the same school — all her stories about him have to do with how driven he was and how the music was everything , She even remembers him taking the horn into the bathroom when he went.
AUDIO: David S. Ware Flight of i (full album)
I’d love to hear about the first time you met David S. Ware. How soon was it before you began playing with him after meeting him?
David S Ware had put out word that he wanted a pianist in the band –one who did not sound like Cecil Taylor — William Parker and Reggie Workman suggested me to David . He put out the word that he wanted to meet me. I attended a performance he did at the knitting factory and went up to introduce myself. We got together and played a week later—after the session David looked at me and said –‘’I think we have known each other for a few lifetimes.”
Earlier this year in January, before COVID, Pastoral Composure turned 20, which was your first installment of your Blue Series on Thirsty Ear. I’d love to hear how the idea for the Blue Series came about and what why you began it with Pastoral Composure, which is one of my favorite albums of yours.
Wow it’s the 20th year since the Blue Series. Thirsty Ear had been an alternative rock label, and they decided to start a branch of the label that was jazz. So they asked me to curate it and to start the series off. I had wanted to do a CD with the great trumpet player Roy Campbell, so this was the chance. I went back and explored some of my straight ahead jazz roots on parts of the CD.
AUDIO: Matthew Shipp Quartet Pastoral Composure (full album)
You are also a part of a pair of albums that came out this year on RogueArt, Clawed Stone with John Butcher and Thomas Lehn and Then Now with Rob Brown. You do a lot of recording with Rogue Art and I’d love to know how you first got involved with them and what you appreciate about them as a label. Looking at their catalog they have put out some pretty strong ensembles. Also, do you have a favorite RogueArt album that you aren’t on?
I recorded the first RogueArt CD—and I obviously record a lot for the label. It is great to have a branch of my work on a French label –that as far as the USA goes the CDs function as imports and another branch of my music. The RogueArt catalogue is now a complete body of work in and of itself. I’d love to see a piece somewhere that dealt with the totality of that body of work. Since I’ve recorded so much for the label it has almost functioned as a patronage type situation. I don’t know if I have a favorite. That is like asking what is your favorite –your arm or your leg.
I know you recorded for Columbia as part of the David S. Ware Quartet, but I was wondering if you ever got an offer from, say, Verve or Blue Note or ECM to record a leader album with them? Do you have any interest at all to record for a Universal label?
I’ve never had an offer from one of those so-called majors and I like it that way. I especially like never having an offer from ECM.