Pianist and composer Matthew Shipp has been a regular fixture on the international creative music stage for nearly 30 years, his work centered among progressive improvisers in lower Manhattan for much of that time. Probably most familiar for his presence in the piano chair of saxophonist David S. Ware’s (1949-2012) long-running quartet, which was disbanded in 2008, Shipp has also led a variety of groups and collaborated outside the traditional realm of free improvisation with electronic artists (Spring Heel Jack) and hip-hop musicians (DJ Spooky). There was a point at which it might have seemed like Shipp was out of the spotlight, but the last few years have seen him recording and performing with increasing frequency. A trio with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey is now his main vehicle, and Shipp has also appeared with a number of remarkable contemporary saxophonists like Ivo Perelman, John Butcher, Darius Jones, Jemeel Moondoc, and Ras Moshe both in performance and on disc, as well as reaching back to his roots engaging the music of Duke Ellington (To Duke, RogueART, 2015).
One group Shipp led in the late 1990s and early 2000s was the acclaimed String Trio with violist Mat Maneri and bassist William Parker, who together recorded two discs for the Swiss label Hat Art before eventually disbanding. The format is reprised in the Matthew Shipp Chamber Ensemble, with Shipp Trio bassist Michael Bisio filling Parker’s role (albeit with an entirely different approach to the instrument) and The Gospel According to Matthew and Michael being their first recording. As with the piano trio, this unit is structured as both a collective ensemble and an amalgamation of three distinct voices; as such, each member of the Chamber Ensemble is occasionally given unaccompanied sections to drive this point home. In performance, Shipp’s work — whether solo or in ensembles — tends to flow relatively seamlessly, with pieces feeding into one another and familiar themes cropping out of voluminous improvisations; The Gospel According to Matthew and Michael is no exception.
A crucial aspect of the Chamber Ensemble and the String Trio is the harmonic slipperiness that the string players focus on, contra the piano. Mat Maneri is the son of saxophonist and composer Joe Maneri (1927-2009), whose own chamber work focused on microtonal improvisation, and while the violist has certainly forged his own path, his grand swoops and deft ponticello technique tend to blur — if not obliterate — the demarcations of Western tonality. That’s not to say he doesn’t employ romantic late-19th-century snatches in his sinewy improvisations, but they may be broken apart only to be picked up by Shipp’s piano a few bars later. The piano isn’t normally thought of as a microtonal instrument, but Shipp’s lifelong focus has been to use the piano as a vessel to communicate a language that is beyond time and space, and thus traditional harmony. If one can’t bend the piano as one would a string, he comes damn close, through utilizing clusters and superimpositions that, whether in pointillist grace or unbroken swaths, grant his phrasing a forceful, sublime quaver. The bulwark goading and refereeing the dances between piano and viola is Bisio’s bass, advancing a left-field blues on “Chapter 11” that references Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” before tessellating outward. Bisio’s tone is robust and his time impeccable; a compact and fluid player, he darts and masses notes on “Chapter 7,” blurring pizzicato phrases until Charles Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song” emerges, a nod to Ellingtonian tradition among ambiguous daubs and cloud-borne shrikes.
The Gospel According to Matthew and Michael is of a piece with much of Shipp’s work, as it focuses on multivalent communication between individuals to create a group language that is both singular and partial. The roles could be shifted slightly to include a percussionist or a wind player, and the locus of the music would remain comparable — employing Dickey or saxophonist Rob Brown would retain its quintessential Shipp-ness. Yet what this disc brings home is that the individual voices, distinct in their makeup, is the prime generator, and the ensemble’s grammar draws from personal experience, spirit, and language.