If the winds of change are any signal, there's a storm ahead. Pianist Matthew Shipp, brought out of retirement by Thirsty Ear's offer to become artistic director of its Blue Series imprint, has been waving flags right and left. Last year's Nu Bop signaled his vision of out jazz combined with studio production; its infectious accessibility brought it wide acclaim. Equilibrium continues in the same vein.
What's particularly remarkable about these records, aside from their actual content, is the way they have penetrated the musical worlds of listeners who might not otherwise tune in to jazz. It's a surprising mirror of the events in the early '90s which brought a community of punk listeners over to the neo energy music of Shipp, David S. Ware, and others. In the case of Equilibrium, Shipp treads a fine line between creative improv and creative electronic manipulation. The half-breed, frought with danger, is amazingly effective. It's a step up from the tight and occasionally repetitive energy of Nu Bop.
Equilibrium brings Shipp together with sympathetic colleagues William Parker (bass), Gerald Cleaver (drums), and Khan Jamal (vibes). At times, as on "Nebula Theory," they inhabit a spacious world defined by openness, resonant held tones, and an understated spirituality. Parker's arco bass, blended with Khan's vibes, conveys an otherworldly atmosphere. This tune, fresh in its delicacy, should hold the attention of the most avid afficionados of New York's free music scene.
But then, five minutes later, the group breaks out on "Cohesion." FLAM, who receives due credit for his work behind the scenes, tinkers here and there to crispen the music. In this case, he sparks a groove explosion. Programmed beats intersect with Cleaver's own deep funk, the piano and vibes sailing on top. Shipp, who lends his own particular brand of gothic energy to the piece, falls right into a relatively simple harmonic framework. But he works it to advantage, aided by rippling conversation on the vibes. Jamal's role here as foil and seond lead voice renders an organic sense to every piece, regardless of its orientation. (Pay attention to this man's music.)
The key to this record's success is its fearless combination of approaches: jazz in a relatively pure form, as well as blended with a hip-hop/electronica sensibility. The mixes and effects, rather than diluting the essence, enrich it. So many pitfalls avoided, so many heights reached: Equilibrium is a brilliant record which should bear appeal to an incredibly wide range of listeners.
Personnel: Matthew Shipp: piano; William Parker: bass; Gerald Cleaver: drums; Khan
Jamal: vibes; FLAM: synths, programming.