Matthew Shipp: Shipp Shape
Shipp's first significant label mentor for work as an ensemble leader was Werner X. Uehlinger, parent to the now venerable Hat Hut Records label.
Art Lange handled the production for the session series in New York.
"I produced six different recording sessions with Matt for Hat Hut Records between August 1996 and November 1999," says Lange. "Four of the sessions were done at Seltzer Sound, which was a small studio inside the apartment of engineer Carl Seltzer. The piano, which had been Eubie Blake's during his lifetime and was willed to Carl after Blake's death, was in the living room. The control room was a very narrow adjacent room, not much bigger than a walk-in closet, with a tiny window looking out on the living room. It was a tight squeeze whenever there were more than two people in the control room. But Carl was a very easy person to work with, and the intimacy of the living room/studio obviously helped the musicians feel at home.
"The other two sessions were recorded at Sorcerer Sound. The notable thing about all six of the sessions was that no two had the same instrumentation. I think Matt was working with a lot of different musicians at this time (you'd have to check with him if this is accurate), and so appreciated the opportunity to improvise in response to different musicians, and to hear his musical ideas with different colors (instruments).
"Matt was always totally prepared for each session, and had a strong idea of how he wanted the music to sound, while still leaving space for spontaneity and surprises as they happened. I don't remember ever having a lengthy delay during any of the sessions, while the musicians rehearsed a piece of music. Nor do I remember having to make suggestions to Matt about the style or variety of the music, as producers sometimes have to do. Some musicians want, or need, some direction from the producer, but Matt knew what he wanted. My primary role was to serve as a pair of critical ears in the control room, to help Matt confirm that the music was working, and to help him get the results he wanted. I did not come into any of the sessions with a particular agenda, other than to do what was necessary to make sure Matt's goals were realized.
"As a result, my memory of the sessions were that they went smoothly and were very successful," Lange concludes. "I think those albums show off the breadth of Matt's music as it was at that time (which naturally has continued to evolve over time)the thematic unity, the interaction, the concentration, and the willingness to take chances. I'm proud of having made a contribution to those albums... they are among my favorite sessions of the ones I have produced."
Uehlinger offers the long view for a sense of the shelf life of this remarkable series. He has always been motivated by how music answers him and lacks the commercial value calculations that typically drive the industry.
"I never thought about values when I produced a new musician," says Uehlinger. "At the point I recorded Matthew, he was known and had his own image in the United States. In Europe he was known for being the pianist of David Ware. I was interested in Matthew's potential and wanted to give him a platform to record in different formations. Matthew was very open and he did a great job. As expected the trio recording sold better/quicker than the others."
The titles still generate a trickle of sales after the run of years, and are benchmarks of Shipp's work from a very expansive time.
"An interest is still there," Uehlinger suggests. "It could/should be higher. The problem is that Matthew does not fit into the ECM sound as he comes from the jazz origins and has his own thinking and mathematics. He is not getting the [same] attention as pianists treated by softeners and coming out of the Bill Evans/Keith Jarrett school.
"The effect is remarkable, due to the missing storesespecially in Europe, where people have to learn to get active and look out for new sound carriers by mail. I have the feeling that the quantity of people becoming interested in the kind of music we are talking [about] is still the same; part of [the audience] has changed the taste and part of it is not active enough to be informed," Uehlinger concludes.
The disruptive impact of music piracy and the record store supply chain implosion have had a significant impact on both Uehlinger at Hat Hut and his American counterpart, Peter Gordon, at Thirsty Ear.
"The 'culture of free' is music's tsunami," Gordon says. "When you have the highest level of music consumption the world has ever known and a failing music industry, you have a horrendous disconnect. Connectivity without responsibility, particularly in the privacy of your home, is a perfect way to suspend any moral standards. We need to push the reset button and create a fair trade system that works for everyone.
"Information overload is the basic currency of the Internet. It creates a drug-like dependency, whereby we crave more and more while being satisfied less and less. That principle works against the development of any artist's career, as they are given a nanosecond of attention before someone goes on to the next bits and bytes. We need to develop deeply engaging Internet experiences that promotes a lifelong relationship with artists and not just a flashpoint to fill a mindless moment in time. We need to revisit the notion of quality over quantity, as the rewards for a singular investment of time far outstrips an overstuffed warehouse of forgotten goods. Culture is in danger of being just another junk food commodity."
Gordon has a prodigious effort to deflect commoditization at his label, while retaining a sense of the playful that aims to make bridges between genres for Shipp to traverse in the Blue Series they have built as a collaboration.
"There are no prototypical Blue Series artists, as that in itself would be a point of restriction," Gordon asserts. "We are wedded to the notion that jazz is an expansionary language and are attracted to musicians whose vision takes their deep knowledge, puts it in a blender and serve a fresh mix. This is very difficult to achieve without it being marginalized as experimental or perceived as unfinished. So we look for artists who speak in complete thoughts in a uniquely personal way, unburdened by modern thought cycles. We encourage and nurture that freedom of spirit."
And despite grumblings from disgruntled wannabe purists, this free wheeling approach has been fruitful and compelling.
"Generally we've been well received," says Gordon. "We are deeply committed to motivating the senses and challenging the ear in ways that create a new listening experience. However, when you push boundaries and are restless in your drive, you court dissent. That's fine, but controversy for controversy sake is a vapid marketing ploy. Yet controversy in context of expansion and challenging convention with reinvention, is a healthy way to reexamine our own comfort zones and allow new possibilities."
Gordon and Shipp run the Blue Series as a joint venture, and this has given Gordon a very detailed handle on Shipp's acumen in this very particular and unpredictable mode of earning a living.
"Matthew Shipp is a student of music, life and the constructs of the music business," Gordon says. "He takes a deep dive into the marketplace with a fierce analysis of major, minor and truly microscopic movements. He can contextualize this knowledge, as it relates to his own career, and transpose it into an ever evolving road map. Yet remarkably, he is able to compartmentalize things, so his artistic output is pure, drawing from a deeply spiritual place which does not drink from the same well."