Matthew Shipp: Equilibrium (2003)
The buzz on Matthew Shipp's new recording was that it would be his greatest, most accessible, album to date. Accessible Equilibrium most certainly is, but greatness and accessibility for a free jazz artist should rarely be uttered in the same breath.
The latest addition to Thirsty Ear Records' Blue Series, of which Shipp also serves as artistic director, Equilibrium is both funky and free - a genre-bending blend of electronic beats, ambient rhythms and free jazz spontaneity.
Shipp is joined by drummer Gerald Cleaver and by longtime friend and frequent collaborator William Parker on bass. The addition of vibraphonist Khan Jamal to the mix was about the smartest thing Shipp did with Equilibrium. Apparently aware of this stroke of genius, Shipp allows Jamal to roam free (literally) on some of the funkiest composition the pianist has written, at times even allowing him to overshadow the bandleader as the premier soloist of the group.
"Nebula Theory" and the album's title cut, "Equilibrium," are undeniably superb free jazz, with Shipp and Parker interacting in the nearly subconscious manner which the duo excels at. Shipp's desire to develop a crossover of jazz improvisation and atmospheric ambient music is further explored on "Nu Matrix."
However, it is the album's flirtation with jam band-inspired groove theory, as on "Vamp to Vibe" or "Cohesion," that are most disappointing. Though these tracks are good, and they rightfully put plenty of jam bands (Medeski Martin and Wood, and the like) to shame, they hardly reach the level that fans of Shipp's previous work would expect. Later tracks on Equilibrium, most notably "The Root," are better examples of Shipp's brilliant ability to morph the computerized elements of modern music with the rich language of jazz tradition.
Shipp's Equilibrium may well be the album that breaks Thirsty Ear's Blue Series, and the New York City free jazz scene, into the mainstream. Though Shipp and his brethren have yet to be accepted by the rest of the jazz community, the open-minded listeners of hip-hop and electronic music will be most willing to embrace Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Gerald Cleaver and Khan Jamal as the cutting edge artists they are.
Track Listing: 1. Equilibrium 2. Vamp to Vibe 3. Nebula Theory 4. Cohesion 5. World of Blue Glass 6. Portal 7. The Root 8. The Key 9. Nu Matrix
Personnel: Matthew Shipp, piano; William Parker, bass; Khan Jamal, vibes; Gerald Cleaver, drums; Chris Flam, synths + programming.