Matthew Shipp: Traversing The Regions of the Mind
Creation is not an act of summation. It is an act of the integration of exposure, assimilation, experimentation, organization, refinement. That integration's expression comes through a language specifically crafted and honed by the artist. The musical language that Shipp uses, he believes, began to develop when he was a toddler, for at that time, he claims, in the most general sense, given the way he understands how consciousness evolves, "everyone knows all music by the age of two." Combine his cognizance of that nascent awareness with the way he describes his entrance to life on earth and there is no question as to how Shipp crafts his music:
"I have no influencesI existed together with god and the piano before time Beganand my piano playing is the direct result of the fact that my mind and the cosmic mind that sustains the universe are in harmony, so when I play, I intercept electro-magnetic frequencies directly from the mind of god and can convert them to lyrical phrases on the piano. If at any time it sounds like another pianist it's because the universe is one organism and there is one underlining [sic] language field so what I articulate on the piano can resemble what another part of the one cosmic brain would articulate on the piano."
"Probably at thirteen," Shipp began listening to Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. Shipp considers both pianists pioneers of bebop whereas he sees Dizzy Gillespie as "the salesman" of the style. Shipp also identifies with these two pianists for reasons connected with the perception of race: how racism threatens the flow of creation engendered in people of African-American heritage; blocks the view of the origins of important musical genres; and, instead, replaces the genuine product with some superficial one that grew out of it.
Whereas many pianists of his generation reference the likes of Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, Shipp dipped deeper into the history of jazz to surround himself with the music of the "true messengers" of piano art, especially Powell. Of Powell, Shipp proclaims: "Bud is the greatest...he is the source...he is an angel." Regarding Monk as a "true modern musician," Shipp respects the pianist's discipline and his belief in himself: where Monk's "open mind absorbs everything into his own idiom...to offer an infinity of responses for future generations." Shipp exemplifies a future generation. How he has grasped the genius of both Powell and Monk has nothing to do with taking from them, rather he has learned from them through osmosis: knowing their history, feeling their approach to the keyboard and sensing their auras and inner beings.
Although he has worked with many contemporary groups and incorporated into his methods the musical input derived from these experiences, the individual musician who has affected him the most is bassist William Parker; once again, not for anything Shipp literally extracts from the way in which Parker plays. Rather it is Parker's demeanor, attitude towards life, his uniqueness, his "homemade development of his own reality" by which Shipp is embraced. Parker has given him nothing but support through their friendship in- and outside of the music, never casting aside the chance for "intense conversations."
Shipp can define his musical language technically, but in his own poetic way. When asked to characterize the elements that constitute his vocabulary, he responds:
"A lyrical placement of notes...tetrachords that are melodic but not in the usual way people try to be lyrical...in other words, little nodal points of sensation on the piano that are melodic fragments.
"A critical mass of fragments reach a critical mass to be clusters or sets of chord substitutions that form harmonic shelves like drawers in a dresser. The harmonies are like sheets of glass plus jarring rhythmic movement. There is an underlying pulse under the music that gives it its kinetic force. But, on top of that crazy pulse, any rhythmic gesture can occur. In other words, you can break it up in infinite ways...tempos, etc."
His musical language is one that is open to transformation; he constantly "rebumps into the contours" of the innocent world view associated with the marker of being "the age of two." For this reason, he can carry the confidence that nothing he does to alter his improvisation methods will upend who he is inside. Because the piano is his only instrument, the challenge he sets for himself every time he plays is to imprint his mind on the instrument through his fingers. He is not tied down in static musical concepts, in premeditated grandiose notions of the way the music should sound or in a status quo originating in public expectation.
In June of 1995, Shipp was invited to perform a solo concert at The Akademie der Künste, in Berlin. He was informed that the concert would be recorded. A first for him, Shipp was "giddy" with the novelty of the experience, so before he played he conditioned his mind to "sound good for the recording." As he was quoted in the liner notes, he wanted "to get his hands really accustomed to using the whole piano. I actually worked on some things from the classical literaturebaroque stuff mostly. That got me thinking in some new directions." The result was the 1997 Before The World, from Free Music Production of Berlin. How it sounds typifies the nature of how, at that time, he projected his language. The phrasing possesses a strong identity. Overall, the phrasing sparkles cleanly; it seems separated; often repeated chords or bass notes project rich dark colors. But the music moves constantly forward and ever so delicately touches melodies as antidotes to the heaviness he finds in the bass end of the keyboard. The breadth of his capacity for solo improvisation loomed large.
Released two years before the FMP album came out, his second solo session came out in 1995 on No More Records. He was approached by the producer, Alan Schneider, to offer up some ideas for it, so Shipp later presented Schneider with what he had in mind "scribbled on a napkin." Spending one day in the recording studio, Shipp manufactured a recording of thirteen "compact miniatures of ideas imposed on a structure," called Symbol Systems. He knew intuitively that all "these different little premises...alphabets... would hold together." He tailored this record: he was beginning consciously to bring his mind into the creative process ...to connect all those little nodes...to tap the neural network that was his brain. He was giving his work a solidifying purpose.
By the time he made Songs (Splasc(H)) in 2001, Shipp's pianistic attitude was fully deployed. Though he chose to play recognizable tunes, his intention was to infuse them with "Shipp-ness." That is to say, he wanted to use such standards as "Angel Eyes," "On Green Dolphin Street" and hymns like "Almighty Fortress Is Our God" as "armatures for his own vocabulary."
Eleven years after his debut solo album, Thirsty Ear released One. Just as the FMP recording had been an omen to Shipp that he was meant to play solo, so the chance meeting with Peter Gordon, at the ASCAP awards, where Shipp received the first ever Jazz Vanguard Award in June, 2005, indicated his future path. Gordon believed that Shipp "could do anything that he wanted to do musically." In August of the same year, One was recorded, and was released shortly thereafter in January, 2006. For this album, Shipp committed himself to serious composition. He notated the heads for "Patmos" and "Module;" he wrote the lead sheets for "Gamma Ray" and "Abyss Code," and abstracted "Blue In Orion" from a Miles Davis tune. The improvisations in the recording established the high standards that Shipp owned, even in the tracks for which Shipp wrote nothing. This had been another opportunity for Shipp to further his language, to reach another level of transcendence, where his spiritual goals could penetrate the tactile world; where he could let his musicality grab onto the physical boundary of the piano keys, surmount their limitations and trust that he could throw himself into the soundscape without any metaphorical injury.
His next solo recording, Un Piano, was produced by RogueArt in 2008. Shipp aimed to "pare down his own language" to achieve that intrinsic Monk and Powell purity, but un-bebop it, and mold a sound that no other pianist produces. "This music," poet Steve Dalachinsky writes in the liner notes, "is a system both simple and severe. It contains a full dimension of style, range, technique & sound sources. It does equally well, feels equally (un)comfortable at home (alien) here in(ner) out(er) (s)pace using broad designs, vagaries, different & difficult patterns & obvious mannerisms."
Shipp has said that Dalachinsky's words paint a clear portrait of the music and of himself. He has also declared that a part of who he is operates in front of "the same backdrop that existed for Beethoven when writing his sonatas," a backdrop that defies creation as permanent. As Belgian pianist Edwin Fischer (1886-1960) commented in his 1959 Beethoven's Piano Sonatas: A Guide for Students and Amateurs: "For Beethoven, the sonata form is not a scheme that can be used in caprice one day and abandoned the next. This form dominates everything he imagines and composes; it is the very mark of his creation and the form of his thoughtan inherent form, a natural one." And so for Shipp, the form of his music, as it bleeds from his mind through to his fingers, seizes tiny aspects of the great cosmic puzzle, forever to pose questions about the next steps to take, the turns to make, and the choices to face in search of the cosmic piano.