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Matthew Shipp: Traversing The Regions of the Mind

By Published: January 25, 2010
Finding the Cosmic Piano

Before Shipp sat down in front of the 1894 Steinway B grand piano at the Roulette recording session, he rolled up the sleeves of his blue denim shirt and sat down on the bench. He warmed up his fingers and joked with the people in the room, had a conversation with Peter Gordon and set his brain in coincidence with his breath. He was the only person in the room who had any inkling as to what he would play. In his mind, he was embodied in the piano, alone, yes, but also together with the rest of history and time-space.

Matthew Shipp Matthew Shipp at the 4D Recording Session

Before he began, he leaned towards the microphone that was suspended over the instrument's sounding board and announced "Vibration and Sequence" as a title. After a brief hiatus, the sound came forth. His piano voice came across as never before. Flowing, lyrical, melodic structures prevailed and penetrated the space. Each note was concise. There was no question that every note was chosen from a stratum of Shipp's consciousness that was imperceptible except through the music. After every piece, he stood up and just said: "How long?" He made a note of the time told to him, walked around a bit and then sat down again to play. If he had a title in mind, he spoke it; otherwise, he simply said the number in the sequence of pieces.

His body language broke into conspicuous physical movement as he moved his legs and bounced his feet with the rhythm or to activate the pedals. He looked straight ahead. Sometimes, he lowered his head to a position that was at a right angle to his shoulders. The muscles in his forearms flexed as his fingers spread to play chords. His fingers touched the keys assuredly, automatically, as if their nerve endings were not complete without their connection to the piano.

From piece to piece, which at the onset of the session lasted on the average of five minutes each, Shipp moderated the textures in the way in which he shaped the details, the nuances of the continuing line. These small concerns were the focus of the inestimable amount of time spent practicing before that evening. The music manifested no discrete separations between phrasings anymore; an unabashed fluidity crept through the form and overcame its past posture. The "metaphysic" underlying his language had not changed: the shape of the vocabulary had. His voice had not changed; the thrust and strength of the tonality had.

Midst endlessly innovative improvisations, Shipp re-interpreted recognizable pieces from his own repertoire; he interpreted a few standards, one of which was "Autumn Leaves;" and hammered out a tune remembered from his childhood because he said, "it would give him an excuse to pound." Towards the end of the session, he began playing hymns, alluding to Monk, who recorded several hymns during his career.

The session lasted three hours; Shipp played thirty pieces. By the time he had reached song number twenty-two, his immersion was evident for a little more than fifteen minutes. He was utilizing every aspect of his vocabulary. He tripped across the treble keys, accented one or two high notes repeatedly, returned to the mid- register and rumbled through keys as if to make one sound out of a multiplicity of notes; his left hand marked the meter with sporadic chords to fill the absence of chords in the treble. His right hand fingers literally danced across the middle to the right end of the keyboard. At one point, he landed in the bass and it did not seem like he could extricate himself, but he did. He clustered the notes, and out of the clusters, moved right into multi-note phrasing as it was meant to be; his instinct and intuitive logic were in control. He was in a period of complete transcendence of the objective nature of what he was doing. He had unquestionably mounted the plane where his psychic vision and its literal translation had merged. After finishing number twenty-two, he immediately switched gears into "trying" Ellington's "Prelude to A Kiss." His timing was impeccable. With crystalline clarity, he slid into some dissonant chords, but adhered reverently to the melody, gently and tenderly improvising to the close.

Nearly having completed the set, he exclaimed that he "was really tired." Deservedly so.

The Final Design

In the last stages of production, Shipp scrutinized the tracks carefully. He exchanged emails with Gordon, describing how he felt about his choices for the sequence of songs. He was interested in tempo, the balance of styling from the "boppish" to the classical and the blues. It was his intention to portray everything that he is and create an album that formed one continuous piece of music. The order in which he placed the pieces ended up where couples of songs were linked, but those couples shifted in and out of the order in which they were initially played. The first cut of the session wound up becoming the first cut of the final sequence, and the last cut, the last cut.

Shipp named the cuts, after the final sequence was determined. "All the titles," Shipp says, "have to do with electromagnetism—photons, light particles—which You could consider the soul. [The soul] is light and it is pure intelligence and it is what animates us, so it is a scientific explanation for all the hocus-pocus of religion. Photons were called messenger particles by Einstein and angels mean 'messenger,' so we are animated by an individual intelligence. Our head is a temple, a neural network or garden. The right hemisphere equals the garden of Eden: if the electricity is flowing right you have heaven, if it is flowing wrong you have hell—[the] same energy, but different flows. So all the titles in some way have to do with the flow of electricity that is our neural reality. The algebra of our nervous system equals jazz as a language system, to find a second of equilibrium within this blue web in space." One of the titles is "Blue Web in Space;" another is "Teleportation;" and another "Dark Matter."

The seventeenth of eighteen cuts on 4D is called "Primal Harmonic." It is dedicated to Alice Coltrane. The sound evokes nothing short of cascades of notes that break, tease, shift and flow like waves landing on a beach. In Shipp's words, Alice Coltrane "represents someone who comes to improvised music from an Afro- American approach but with a cosmic consciousness as the premise...She searched for the archetype of what I would call the cosmic piano, which is something only a jazz pianist could articulate on the piano but in order to do must have transcended jazz..." To transcend jazz is the creed of Shipp's religion.

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