Matthew Shipp Harmony and Abyss

[Thirsty Ear; 2004]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: jazz, avant-garde jazz
Others: Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, Thelonious Monk

Back in 1999, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to a Tim Hagans album, entitled Animation*Imagination. The album featured production by Bob Belden and programming/turntables by DJ Smash and DJ Kingsize. What made Animation*Imagination such a wonderful record was Hagans' innovation and willingness to break free of traditional jazz conventions.

In many ways, Matthew Shipp's recent Thirsty Ear release, Harmony and Abyss, is similar to Animation*Imagination. Granted, Tim Hagans is a trumpeter, and Shipp is a keyboardist, but the idea behind the albums seems quite similar. Both effectively meld electronics and traditional acoustic jazz. Harmony and Abyss is also part of Thirsty Ear's Blue Series Continuum, which is curated by Shipp, and has included releases from El-P, Anti-Pop Consortium, DJ Spooky, Meat Beat Manifesto, et al. The Blue Series Continuum was conceived to be a series of jazz-based, collaborative efforts that break down the barriers separating musical genres and subvert the traditional principles of jazz.

Harmony and Abyss is a phenomenal album that, in the fashion of the Blue Series, blurs the distinction between jazz and electronic music in an effort to bring each individual genre to a wider audience; and as such, the album is incredibly successful. While there has lately been an indication that many electronic artists are moving ever closer toward contemporary classical composition (and vice versa), Shipp utilizes his compositional skills to craft an album that, although technically a jazz record, contains structures and arrangements that are not unlike modern composition.

Musically, most of Harmony and Abyss has a dark, futuristic, sometimes clinical feel to it. Shipp employs slow, repetitive chord patterns on much of the album, welcoming comparisons to some of the relatively recent keyboard works of Ligeti. Elsewhere on the record are synthesized sci-fi atmosphere and meticulous drum programming from FLAM used in conjunction with astonishing drumming from virtuoso Gerald Cleaver. Harmony and Abyss is considerably denser than your traditional jazz offering as well. There is a machinelike, throbbing eeriness pervading the album that offsets the warmth of the record's acoustic instrumentation, challenging the listener's sense of aesthetics and harmony.

As curator of the Blue Series Continuum, presumably Matthew Shipp had a lot to lose with this release, and it does not disappoint. Shipp's new album is a superb introduction to the Thirsty Ear series, and exemplifies everything the series sets out to achieve. Harmony and Abyss is a worthwhile addition to the collection of any discriminating jazz aficionado, or anyone who thinks everything musical has already been done at least once.

1. Ion
2. New ID
3. 3 in 1
4. Virgin Complex
5. Galaxy 501
6. String Theory
7. Blood 2 the Brain
8. Invisible Light
9. Amino Acid
10. Abyss

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