Well, Matthew Shipp has finally grabbed my ear and won’t let go. After several years of not quite knowing what to make of pianist Shipp’s avant-jazz creations, this new album has cleaned out the wax and got me to thinkin’. Maybe it’s the gripping presence of Wadada Leo Smith, who replaced the less accessible (but assuredly most talented) Roy Campbell in this quartet’s trumpet chair. Shipp’s compositions also seem more interesting this time around, and the group interplay and improvisations are compelling, questioning, full of tension. Whatever the case, this is a fascinating album that might, and should, win Shipp some new fans.
The touching Orbit theme is revisited four times on this disc, viewed and analyzed from different angles. Track #1 is an interpretation by the full quartet: Shipp sustains the high chordal majesty; William Parker’s bass thrums subtlely; drummer Gerald Cleaver swells and tinkers while staying unobtrusive; and Smith glides authoritatively over it all with the dark power of Miles Davis. On track #3 Shipp reviews the theme by himself, bringing an almost classical air to the music. Parker takes many chances with the tune on track #5, an arco bass solo filled with double-stops and staccato chugging. The short final version is a duet for piano and arco bass, perhaps more syncopated than the other renditions but no less commanding. Could Shipp have composed a future post-bop standard? Time will tell, but Orbit certainly has the potential for further evaluation by other artists.
The remaining tracks are a diverse lot. #2 is a sparse piano/drum duet, an exercise in musical pointillism under cloudy skies. The pensive #7 shows off Shipp’s refined taste in harmony and chord voicings, along with Smith’s underappreciated capabilities as a balladric player. Smith is also up-front on #4, blowing tremulously on the mysterious melody, solo at first and later floating along on the rhythm section’s moist heat. His braying, fleeting trumpet is also buoyed by Parker’s bass drone on #9. Track #6 is rapid and toothy, a more typical free-jazz excursion sans piano; #8 is brief, fragmented and searching.
This quartet is a band of potent ideas. They know just how to shape and explore without getting bogged down in the material, as so many avant-garde sessions end up. Shipp and his quartet are on to something good, and their future releases will bear watching to see how this well-chosen ensemble continues to develop. In the interim, if you’re looking for an introduction to Matthew Shipp, I believe this disc might be a good, approachable starting point. (http://www.thirstyear.com)
Personnel: Matthew Shipp, piano; Wadada Leo Smith, trumpet; William Parker, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums.