The rather prolific Matthew Shipp is the most relevant jazz pianist of the last few decades. With more than 85 releases of bold ‘n’ brave music as a solo performer and in duo/ trio/quartet formats alongside the avantish jazz likes of the David S. Ware Quartet, Ivo Perelman, Sabir Mateen, Darius Jones, Joe Morris, Jemeel Moondoc, Mat Walerian and two tons of others, he hasn’t had time to take a vacation. Several years ago Shipp told me he was thinking of retiring from recording, because, he said, there was just too much music out there in consumer land. I’m glad he didn’t, because his recorded output since spouting such balderdash has only grown more profound — and truly electrifying.
Recorded in first takes with his current trio (bassist Michael Bisio, drummer Newman Taylor Baker), Shipp’s new Signature album is, like much of his work of the last three decades, not an easy thing upon which to put one’s finger. But we’re talking here about a semi-improvised music played on piano, bass and drums, so let’s call it free jazz and get that outta the way. And the piano trio is no doubt the language in which Shipp communicates best; it allows him to reference the ghosts of jazz past in a way that gives you and him something to lean on — he summons Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell in substantial ways; a more superficial ear would place him in the Cecil Taylor “school” of doing things; there’s major chunks of Henry Cowell in it as well.
Shipp’s music is an intellectual music, literally, his “emotions” seemingly taking their cues from the impulses of his active mind as it instructs him how to move his fingers on the keyboard. Which doesn’t mean his music is coldass or forbidding — a Matthew Shipp recording documents the many conceivable ways a human brain can work its magic. His brain’s capacity for surprise is his subject matter; it fascinates him, keeps him company on cold nights. While it’s obviously true that many of our most advanced musicians have mined the fertile ground that lies somewhere between their brains, hearts and limbs, it’s just that Shipp is especially geniuslike at it. Shipp’s is a very fertile brain, from the sound of it, with a heightened ability to combine thoughts to create third thoughtlike entities, which invariably lead ferociously fast to other thoughts, and to spend quality time with certain thoughts he’s never had before.
What Shipp does — how he’s doing things differently — is best understood from a technical angle, as you ponder this li’l tidbit Shipp once spake about his musical methodology: “I’m trying to bleed out of the piano a contrapuntal kaleidoscope.” He also said, “There’s no such thing as chords. There’s independent voices moving and independent voices coming together to form blocks of sound. Within Western theory, when you have a few notes coalescing you call it this chord and that chord, but actually what is happening in music is always the movement of contrapuntal voices.”
A conception of musical counterpoint really helps in your comprehension (and enjoyment) of Signature, whose easy-to-get-into tracks float like a butterfly and kick like a mule, sometimes simultaneously; they have the black & white dynamism of Kandinsky’s woodcuts. The title track’s initial mood is contemplative and cool, but quickly becomes amiably angular as it spiderwebs notes in “modern” ways; brush drums and a stumbly acoustic bass lock in with Shipp in a most organic way. But this is how Shipp works: Regarding your first impression of a structure, you think you’re in one place but you’re in many. Compare that sensation with the familiar description of the structures of Debussy: they’re a series of different objects viewed under the same light. This type of rocking building blocks allows Shipp to pursue an important evolution in any progressive music: The development of a strictly personal symmetry, or individual sense of logical musical structure.
Such a discrete symmetry can be heard in Shipp’s “Flying Saucer,” where this spontaneously composed thing is the thing itself. The track hasn’t much to do with “impressions,” musical references or following through on what a contrived compositional system told him he had to do. Shipp is rolling, stabbing at notes, left hand prominent and way down there. He and his mates keep it up, absorbing each other, in fact playing like each other albeit on different instruments. Shipp’s now a whirlwind, an army waving banners, birds pecking at your palms. You wouldn’t call the resultant sound field alien — Shipp keeps hitting these jazz-referential “club” chords that humanize things; then he’s quickly back out there, following his head’s forays into the wild blue yonder, or tromping about in a bog.
Speech of Form
The cocky pointyhead Matthew Shipp’s playing is fleet-fingered, light but very, very strong; throughout, Bisio’s bass and Taylor Baker’s drums are almost aburdly in-tune with Shipp’s symmetry, deserving of the supremest compliment any musician can get: They disappear, much like how Horsemouth’s drums vanish on those old Burning Spear records. Musicians like these become heartbeats. (Bisio does get a “solo” turn in the all-bass-drone interval called “Deep to Deep,” as does Taylor Baker in the multi-percussive “Snap.”)
Signature’s standouts include the oddly shaped 16 minutes of “This Matrix” (speedy pianist virtuoso swats swarms of mosquitos, clears the way for a looong bass solo), the similarly epic and appropriately titled “Speech of Form” (crosses rivers and valleys, stops for picnic lunch, takes a whizz, moves on), and the pointillistic and pedal-effects-adorned “Stage Ten,” in which, come to think of it, the music appears to emanate from the listener’s own body and mind. Thank you, maestro Shipp.
John Payne is Music Critic at Riot Material. He also writes about music and film at publications including Mojo, The Quietus, Red Bulletin, Drum!, High Times and Bluefat. Mr. Payne is the former music editor of LA Weekly, and the author of the forthcoming official Diamanda Galás biography Homicidal Love Songs and editor/co-author of Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer (Unbound, spring 2019).