To participate in the life of playing creative music is to participate in what is, ideally, a very long course of study and refinement. While a collective music in most instances, the art often results in extended periods of solitary work, whether communing with an instrument’s truest sound and innate possibilities, or tracing the structure of an arc that will be buoyed by individual players. Pianist Matthew Shipp, born in Wilmington on December 7, 1960, is no stranger to solitude despite decades of collaboration. In 2016, I interviewed Shipp about what was next for him, following an extraordinary week at venerable Lower East Side performance space The Stone (which is closing in early 2018), and he answered, “If I had complete freedom to do what I want, meaning enough money, to be honest I’d like to become a complete recluse and hardly be seen in public — that’s my goal, just to keep practicing. I do like playing with people but I basically want to be a recluse like Carlos Castañeda. I’m going to be 60 in four years and there’s not much I’m interested in other than being a help to a few people, doing my music… If I could work when I wanted, and there wasn’t a minute that I had to be on the road, I might end up working in a soup kitchen and be happy.”
Shipp’s current trio with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker has just released its latest disc on Thirsty Ear, Piano Song, on the heels of 2015’s The Conduct of Jazz. At 56, his recording schedule is still rather dense, perhaps akin to a finishing sprint. In addition to dates as a leader, he’s collaborated frequently on disc with Brazilian tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman; convened a duo with the veteran drummer Bobby Kapp; recorded with the Houston-NYC Core Trio; played the music of saxophonist/composer and historian Allen Lowe; and cultivated a partnership with the British-German duo of saxophonist John Butcher and electronic artist Thomas Lehn. All of this is far from ascetic activity, and speaks to broad-minded involvement in contemporary improvisational possibilities.
Shipp’s music professes both restlessness and a great degree of calm through interlocking shapes that helm a rugged, continually shifting pool, whether solo or with other improvisers. On record, there often are vignettes or small chunks that break up ensemble flow into unaccompanied or duo statements, though in a live setting these emerge organically, signposts that jut and recede. These markers may be familiar Shipp compositions or standards from the books of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, or John Coltrane: “That [variance] is the idea — you eat steak, eggs, and salad but you don’t necessarily want them all at once. You want to metabolize them — it’s the same thing, you eat Ellington or Monk but you digest it and want it to become part of your system.”
Shipp spent 16 years as part of David S. Ware Quartet, where the book was primarily credited to the saxophonist and leader, though the group operated cooperatively. First convened in 1990, the unit was filled out by William Parker on contrabass and a cast of drummers including Marc D. Edwards, Whit Dickey, Susie Ibarra, and Guillermo E. Brown. Touring frequently and cutting 18 well-received albums for labels like Silkheart, Homestead, DIW, Aum Fidelity, NoBusiness, and Columbia, the Ware Quartet helped ensure Shipp’s place in the international free-music community. The group itself posed a steely facade that joined brusque, post-Sonny Rollins tenor shouts with yawing rhythms and chordal-melodic planes. Here the pianist’s position veered between gospel, athletic pointillism, and crashing, splintered and allover clusters, and built on the instrument’s ensemble role qua Cecil Taylor, Jaki Byard, McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock, calling home accessible anthems before chugging into the stratosphere.
Though in terms of both personality and sonic stature Ware’s sublime leap might seem a tough act to follow, Shipp also worked in the bands of vanguard saxophonists like Roscoe Mitchell and Evan Parker, and has appeared with altoist Jemeel Moondoc, a somewhat lesser-known but crucial reedist in New York’s jazz underground. Curious in this light is his collaboration with Allen Lowe, who was until last year based in Portland, Maine, and this work resulted in several recordings culminating in Matthew Shipp Plays the Music of Allen Lowe (Constant Sorrow, 2015). “He’s a really idiosyncratic composer and his tunes are very strangely written, with a lot of craft, but they’re different and you’ve gotta really practice because they don’t fall into your hands,” Shipp says of Lowe. “I really liked working on those pieces and trying to develop a sound for them — they are really valuable.” If the piano parts are Monkish, Lowe’s music otherwise calls to mind the rigor of saxophonist-composer Julius Hemphill and the rough-hewn edges of Charles Mingus’ Jazz Workshop.
At present the pianist is committed to playing his own music first and foremost, and that which, like Ellington or Monk, has formed his musical concept. As a composer, Shipp’s tunes exert themselves primarily as a function of duo and (especially) trio formations, generally in the classic format of piano, bass, and drums, a structure which supported the work of influential pianist-composers like Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal. Treating the piano as a tool of synapse rearrangement through ornate and crushing polarity, Shipp has a special relationship with rhythm players — drummers like Whit Dickey, Guillermo Brown, and the more traditional freedom of Bobby Kapp, as well as recent partner Newman Taylor Baker. Baker is 18 years Shipp’s senior, and has an extensive history in the music. Coming out of the Philadelphia-Wilmington jazz milieu, Baker brings a loose, country-inspired drawl to the drums, linked partly to his “free” approach to the washboard (Baker’s roots are in Mississippi, Ohio, and Virginia), and his time is filled with shuffling detail.
For the pianist, “When I was like 12 or 13 I would go out and see Newman all the time. I never talked to him then, but even when he was in Philly, I’d see him play gigs since it was 20 minutes away, with [guitarist] Monnette Sudler and other people. I started bumping into him later in New York; I played with him on the Jemeel Moondoc record on Relative Pitch [Zookeeper’s House, 2013] — that was the first time we actually played together — and from that I knew he’d be the next drummer in my band when Whit left.” Bisio and Shipp have developed their relationship into a taut game of resolute exploration and pure emotion, as the bassist digs in and dances with his instrument, nearly laying it to the floor as he grapples and gleams. Compared with the pianist’s lanky economy, they present a visual and sonic complement. “I’m not a control freak and that’s partly because my bands I trust so much,” Shipp says, “and that’s a part of an ensemble, the trust of the members. Given that I do trust them so much I don’t really try to control things other than what I can do as a leader, to some degree, from the instrument.”
Whether joined by his regular trio or in other aggregations, Shipp’s performances land him in diverse locations, and he appears comfortable in Midtown jazz-club luxury such as Jazz At Lincoln Center or tiny Lower East Side venues like 5C Café. At The Stone in the summer of 2016 his working trio was the core of a week’s worth of music that focused on local duos and trios. Ivo Perelman and Darius Jones joined Shipp in saxophone and piano duets, and trios included longtime partners like William Parker, alto saxophonist Rob Brown, and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter; violist Mat Maneri; a reunion of the Gold Sparkle Duo with Shipp (who recorded one CD, Apostolic Polyphony, for the defunct Drimala imprint in 2003); and a trio with Bisio and trumpeter Nate Wooley. Brown is a key artist in Shipp’s development, as they began playing together in Boston in the mid-80s and shared studies with Philadelphian Dennis Sandole, one of Coltrane’s teachers. Shipp and Brown made their recorded debut in 1988 as a duo (Sonic Explorations, on Cadence) and have worked together over the ensuing decades. A dryly forceful player, Brown’s involved jounce created a spry foil for a stark, massed chamber of strings and wood, and his statements became more squirrelly and brittle the thicker Shipp and Parker’s demarcated weave got. Like several of the sets that week, a drummer was absent, but that did not stop the proceedings from skewing towards near-constant liftoff.
The studio is a place where Shipp has documented much of his work as a leader, though it is in a roomful of people — perhaps narrow, austere, and brick-walled like The Stone — where the music’s true evolution takes place. Piano Songs is likely not the last Shipp-helmed disc that will see the light of day but, the pianist is in the process of shifting his attention to more frequent live appearances and fewer releases, while maintaining status as jazz curator for Thirsty Ear. While it’s hard to say how long in this economy the label will last, Shipp brings an additional set of open ears to Peter Gordon’s long-running imprint. As Shipp puts it, “I want to exercise my choice in things, but I will be performing until I drop dead. But I am trying to wind down recording — I haven’t because when opportunities come up I need the money… Whatever that psychological need is to document oneself, for me it’s just a product of the opportunities that arise. To be quite honest I’m not touring as much as I should be, so I build time in the studio to compensate.” This isn’t really an abrupt change — the pianist has been increasingly visible onstage in the last few years, after a slight hiatus in the Millennium’s first decade — but a recalibration of energies in the basic art of live development.
Of course, with the music industry in a state of upheaval when it comes to the notion of product, wherein physicality and the concept of an album that collects certain ideologic strands, perhaps now is the right time for renewed focus on the ephemeral — especially for an artist who built his career in part on releasing a copious amount of carefully conceived CDs. Thirsty Ear did give Shipp license to explore an interesting trajectory in the early 2000s within the Blue Series, a sub-label that in a number of cases joined improvisers with electronic and hip-hop musicians like Antipop Consortium, Spring Heel Jack, DJ Spooky, and El-P. Although Shipp hasn’t continued in this mode, he notes curiously, “One of my goals in doing that music was to play with Kool Keith — Dr. Octagon — because I love his music and I used to email him all the time, though he’d never return them… I used to want to play with Madlib a lot too and I’d email him but he never wrote back and I wanted to give a bunch of tracks to Amon Tobin to see what he could do with them, but we never met or got the chance.” Now, the closest he comes to electronic music is his work with Lehn and Butcher; the former has a pianist’s sense of orchestration, and their fall 2016 disc on Fataka, Tangle, is an aptly-named listen.
At heart, though, Shipp is a jazz musician, even if the term is somewhat nebulous and ill-defined in the 21st century. “I think the older I’ve gotten, I definitely am much more interested in relating to a jazz phraseology than i was in the 1980s and 90s. It’s weird because I’ve listened to my old recordings and I can hear my thought processes — there are times I can tell that I didn’t want anything to do with jazz per se, whereas now I really relate to a swing feeling, even if the pulse is elongated. I don’t see that going away and I actually see that intensifying, unless I get into some post-jazz Satie realm or something… for example, I can’t relate to drums that don’t have that basic jazz essence. Maybe that’s why I like Bobby Kapp so much, because he’s such an authentic jazz drummer.” It makes sense to title a recording The Conduct of Jazz, for example, because as abstract as his music might get, there’s still a pulsative swing and a new language developed from forms as far-reaching as blues, a Latin feeling, the bebop idiom or pan-tonal exploration. None of these elements, solo or wrapped together, will be retiring any time soon.