It's a fairly established music principle: Give Wayne Shorter a cheap student sax and he still sounds like a master. Give Ashlee Simpson a "booster" vocal and she still sounds awful. Gadgets and technology are great, in other words, but don't forget humility pills if the talent isn't there.
Pianist Matthew Shipp digs deeper into the toy box on Harmony And Abyss, using samples and other electronics to advance the adventures into jazztronica that began with 2002's Nu Bop and continued on 2003's Equilibrium. His latest does nothing to threaten his place among top performers like the Bad Plus and Uri Caine, at least for listeners who accept it as legitimate progressive jazz instead of fraudulent indulgence.
To say Shipp's latest lacks artistry or intelligence is disingenuousstrains of classical, swing and other "intelligent" forms surface throughoutbut it is often simple in concept and execution. The electronica format almost mandates heavy repetition, along with lots of sonic textures appropriate for "space odyssey" soundtracks.
But while he's droning out a dark-key melody on, say, "Virgin Complex," William Parker is taking a bow to his acoustic bass and building up a pace bordering on ridiculousyet still being somehow subtle about itbefore dropping listeners off and serving as a cushion at the end. They also prove heft can squeeze into a mere two minutes with their free-playing "Invisible Light," where the difference between individual indulgence and fitting-in freelancing is clear.
It's a highly listenable collection of songs, perhaps at the expense of some artistic daring that might increase its acclaim among purists. "Blood 2 The Brain" is an addictive bit of twisted funk, even if the sonics are greater than the sum of its parts (Parker gets three trips to center stage but is only asked to play the same vamp every time). "Galaxy 105" proves everyone capable of the swing/bop thing, albeit in an updated manner fitting the rest of the album (drummer Gerald Cleaver at times supports with a trigger more suitable for a marchor a machine gun).
Parker and Cleaver are at times trapped into beats where a bit more humanity might be welcome. The electronica finally goes a bit too far when Chris Flam takes over with his various "slicing, dicing, synths and programming" on "String Theory," sort of a slow, muffled, droning train ride through a fantasy world. He's more successful on "Abyss," a sci-fi soundtrack piece where Parker's slow-paced bowed bass provides a road map the various sounds can follow.
My biggest criticism of Harmony And Abyss is that it's only 43 minutes long. Plenty of performers get panned for padding albums with filler, but there's also too many top talents squeezing quality music into 75 minutes of space for this to be an excuse. Still, it's a recommended set that will get plenty of spins while listeners wait to see what's next.
Personnel: Matthew Shipp, piano; William Parker, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums; Chris Flam (FLAM), "slicing, dicing,
synths and programming."