Wikipedia tells us that in ancient Indian literature, the term sutra denotes a distinct type of literary composition, based on short aphoristic statements. Similarly concise motifs lie at the heart of many of the selections on Matthew Shipp
's eighth solo album Piano Sutras
. It's a measure of the American's place in the pianistic pantheon that he still has something worthwhile to say after some 25 years on the scene. Of all his outings, Piano Sutras
most resembles Un Piano
(Rogue Art, 2008) in that it comes across as a series of spontaneous improvisations, eschewing the more overtly scripted numbers present on other studio sessions such as 4D
(Thirsty Ear, 2010) and One
(Thirsty Ear, 2005).
Although at times certain nagging refrains and pounded patterns hint at other Shipp constructs, they spin off in new and unexpected combinations following their own internal logic. Taken together they form a suite like continuum, instantly recognizable due to Shipp's deeply personal synthesis of romantic shimmer, flinty undertow and rhythmic spasms. One of the pianist's enduring traits is his refusal to embrace linear narrative through the time honored sequence of theme and variations. Rather he prefers to juxtapose and contrast ideas, rarely settling into a sustained groove. While the thirteen cuts may not inspire whistling along, many of the pieces boast a particularly lyrical core. In fact the blues tinged opening figure of "Blue To A Point" may be as near to convention as Shipp gets. However few would dare belay the point as obsessively as he does at the end of "Fragment Of A Whole" when a Baroque feel gives way to flowing exposition and a dramatic pummeled ending on a single note.
Two standards break the mold, forming brief homages to the tradition. At just over a minute, there is just time for Shipp to delicately gambol twice through the theme of John Coltrane
's "Giant Steps," showing no inclination whatsoever to extemporize on the notoriously restless chord changes. But to focus on facility misses the point. Later in the program, Wayne Shorter
's "Nefertiti" fulfils a comparable function, acting as melodic milestones in a brooding compelling journey which is well worth the effort.