While pianist and improvising composer Matthew Shipp has rightly been heralded as one of the foremost practitioners on his instrument in the last few decades, it would be unfair to regard his work as completely closed off from the piano’s historical presence, even as his crystalline approach is with few peers. Building on the work of figures like Art Tatum, Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, Bill Evans, Stanley Cowell, John Hicks, and Dave Burrell, Shipp relocated to New York in the late 1980s when, contrary to the dreary assumptions one might have about the jazz world, creative music remained a viable alternative to the jazz mainstream, though it often appeared that poles that previously fed one another were erroneously placed in opposition. Shipp’s cellular, motivic clarity was an integral part of the rhythm section for saxophonist David S. Ware’s quartet for 18 years, beginning in 1990, though he was recording as a leader as early as 1988 (Sonic Explorations, Cadence) and as a soloist by 1995 (the extraordinary and scarce Symbol Systems on No More Records). Although perhaps Shipp’s trios have recently received the lion’s share of notoriety — with either Michael Bisio or William Parker on bass, and Whit Dickey or Gerald Cleaver on drums — his solo piano recitals mine an equally valuable material vein.
Piano Sutras is Shipp’s sixth solo disc and third solo performance released on Thirsty Ear, following 2006’s One and 2010’s 4D. Unlike the building of a live recital, where familiar compositional motifs and references to repertoire might evolve simultaneously over an hour’s nearly continuous set, Piano Sutras — and Shipp’s other solo discs — is a collection of shortish, related pieces. Each may be closed off at its beginning and its end, but act as a self-perpetuating jewel of improvisational structure, and there is variance and commonality throughout. This particular set consists of 10 original pieces, as well as brief versions of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti,” both familiar to musicians and jazz heads to the point of being near clichés. Here, they are treated with reverence, elegance, and a tinge of whimsy, fitting in like fire-bricks into the slots that Shipp has carved out. “Giant Steps,” in particular, is both germ and respite, its “harmonic minefield” qualities seemingly stripped away, as it hangs in subtle relief to the knotty originals on this record. What a solo setting can offer is a focus on attack, tone, and invention, as well as compositional structure without the interlocking and sometimes alternating currents of an ensemble.
The second piece, “Cosmic Shuffle,” is a fine example of this: boogie-woogie rolls in the left hand stabilize right-hand glints and Monkish asides, soon becoming a shifting harmonic conversation, as austere upper-register rivulets snake through the voids left when dense passages fall silent. Over the course of five and a half minutes, Shipp creates a dynamic environment of shifting relational spheres, allowing muscular and totemic phrases to act ephemerally. “Blue to a Point” subtly shifts between towering harmonic architecture and deep, churchy resonance — resonance and touch being reason enough to explore solo piano repertoire. Shipp’s approach to the keyboard is a study of tone, decay, muscle, and grace. He’s like a spikier Mary Lou Williams (or A Monastic Trio-era Alice Coltrane) on “Uncreated Light,” round filigree unfolding amid monumental bell-like clangs. A rangy attack that volleys from dense clusters that nearly distort themselves to barely perceptible skims of the keyboard, the physical variance of Shipp’s art is one focal point of Piano Sutras, body and instrument pushing nearly beyond the ability of mics and speakers to convey stacked tones on the closing “The Indivisible,” which is stark and insistent and utterly massive.
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that Shipp’s solo work gives shape to an abstracted sublime. Feelings of wonder and anomie in the face of the void aren’t nameable, although the religious might call them God, and Shipp creates etudes that, using harmonic relationships and rhythmic drive, give form to the formless. Indeed, his music comes from a deeply spiritual worldview, which is itself predicated on the schism between terrestrial physics and forces outside known parameters. Piano Sutras may at times seem singular and hermetic, separate as it is from group music, but Shipp’s solos are multivalent and extraordinarily open — he often refers to sonic elements as “germs” or “cells,” and the possibility of these pieces’ elaboration is inherent in their creation. As a recording, Piano Sutras reveals a music of great nuance and power, and though it stamps itself out with extraordinarily material “thusness,” the effects are much broader than the triangulation of player, instrument, and historical present.