Matthew Shipp Trio at the Blue Note, NYC
The Blue Note
New York, New York
August 27, 2007
Making a record means freezing music in time. The musicians have done their job for that session. What will be heard will only be that session for as long as the recording lasts. Even though a more acute awareness of the music might develop the more the record is played, the actual document remains the same. Yet, when a group performs a number it has recently released as a record, one of the most salient principles of improvised music is easily proven: that it undergoes continual transformation. Certainly, a recognizable melodic theme that has been recorded can recur. But what goes into it and what comes out of it will always be new.
The Matthew Shipp Trio, which includes Joe Morris on bass and Whit Dickey on drums, has made its first record, Piano Vortex (Thirsty Ear, 2007). The group, moreover, has used this footprint to jettison itself into the performance world. Its first stop was the Blue Note Club in New York City on August 27, 2007. Many of the melodies from Piano Vortex crept into the mix during this performance, but many tunes that had not been recorded also showed their faces. In the process the trio revealed a vast repertoire, enabling it to flourish, non-stop, well beyond the tunes on the recording.
Shipp began with fluid, contained arpeggios in the middle of the keyboard. Moving downward, he changed the flow into repeated phrases until he landed his fingers hard and strong into the bass keys. Dickey circled the surface of the snare counterclockwise with his brushes. Morris started plucking with one finger as the repeated piano phrases kicked in. The bass and the drums sank into a quick counterpoint as Shipp baptized the keyboard with a series of chords. The members of trio aligned themselves like the earth, sun and moon would for the eclipse that was to happen later the same night.
The musicians each positioned themselves to receive what the others communicated. Shipp's fingers, shifting from playing bass chords to stroking the keys lightly in the treble register, had laid the ground work for Dickey's up-swoosh on the ride cymbal and Morris's synchronous, delicate pizzicato. The bass and piano often imitated each othertwo aspects of the same musical intention. Dickey adhered to a strict pace; he geared the expanding, though steadfastly hushed, frequencies that radiated from his drums to the piano. Glued to the sound coming from his right and his left, Morris pulled the piano and the drums into one unit.
Morris's solo invited attention to the precision with which he employs his left hand. He stretched his long fingers to ensure that he placed them on exactly the right string at exactly the right time. The bassist clearly has mastered the way in which he moves both hands sequentially to just above the bridge of the instrument until the most nuanced of gestures coalesce into the most intensely satisfying statement. His light-as-a-feather touch elicited an unexpectedly beautiful sound from the strings of his bass, bowed or not.
A drum solo rose out of the music, spontaneously yet as though it were meant to be. Dickey defined a sequence of actions that included the heretofore unheard bass drum along with a stick to the left tom and then a stick to the right. He held the drumsticks stiffly as he went around his set with shimmering swiftness, then settled into a tom-snare-hi-hat synchrony as his wrists initiated the action that brought Shipp and Morris back in.
The tiniest of plucking on the bass introduced Shipp's solo as he launched into a low rumbling that collapsed into arrays of discrete tones that, rather than reverberating, absorbed one another. Chord progressions became arpeggios, arpeggios became tremolos, tremolos became phrases, and the phrases multiplied. Shipp virtually took apart the keyboard. It seemed as though he wanted to find every key and strike it, or as though he searched to replicate every sound he had ever heard the trio play. Referring to the rich resources of his past compositions, Shipp wanted to orchestrate the most holy, the most transcendent of exits. He played chord after chord in a choir- like textural drone. Morris re-entered, paralleling the drone with his bowing; Dickey elevated while softening the cymbal sibilance with mallets. All three continued to play an evolving decrescendo until there was only silence.
The key to hearing these three was to focus on the balance of subtlety and directness, the certainty of the music's direction within an uncharted course, the fluctuation of instrumental priority and the transfiguration of an amoebic melody into greater and greater abstraction. The players interacted as if traveling along an endlessly twisting Mobius strip. Each resisted being perceived as lead player or playing a role in a rhythm section. And the music they created resisted demarcation into a series of calls and responses. The resulting music exhibited a full-bodied three-dimensionality, for, in keeping with the theories of 20th century physics, it was, as a product of time, measurably indivisible from space.
Photo: Lyn Horton