Since the turn of the millennium, pianist Matthew Shipp has ventured further into the realms of electro-acoustic jazz than many of his peers. An intrepid explorer, his open-minded approach to contemporary forms landed him the enviable position of curator for Thirsty Ear's "Blue Series." Shipp has documented a wide variety of projects for the label, from innovative collaborations with underground hip-hop icons Antipop Consortium and programmer FLAM to his solo acoustic piano recording, One (Thirsty Ear, 2006).
Shipp revisits his roots on Piano Vortex by eschewing electronics and post-production wizardry in favor of the traditional acoustic piano trio format. Convening a casual meeting with two long-term associates, drummer Whit Dickey and bassist Joe Morris (setting aside his guitar for sideman duties), Shipp and company recorded an impromptu set free of conceptual baggage.
Working through a previously unexplored collection of originals, the trio blends turbulent swing with brooding ambience. Shipp's writing embodies a dusky, foreboding quality, coloring restless momentum with shades of uncertainty; his pieces veer from still melancholy to tumultuous agitation.
A singular stylist, Shipp's advanced harmonic sensibility and flair for dramatic cadences avoids routine free jazz clichés. Demonstrating great versatility, his spaciously introspective filigrees materialize on the opening of the title track, while pummeling tonal clusters resound like methodical air strikes on the expansive "Sliding Through Space."
Invoking historical antecedents, his slinky phrasing on "Key Swing" recalls Ellington at his most resolute, while the quirky pacing of "To Vitalize" borrows more from Herbie Nichols and Andrew Hill than Cecil Taylor.
Morris continues to grow as a bassist, his extended feature on "The New Circumstance" is a virtual encyclopedia of his abilities to date, moving from sinewy, robust drive to ghostly arco harmonics. Sharing an uncanny conversational acumen with Shipp, their dialogue blurs the lines between accompanist and soloist.
Whit Dickey, Shipp's regular drummer from his 1990s trio with bassist William Parker and fellow associate in the classic David S. Ware quartet, plays with surprising subtlety and restraint. Carefully piloting intricate rhythms, Dickey provides tasteful accents and understated support, even on the jittery free-bop pulse of "Quivering With Speed."
A welcome reminder of Shipp's traditional origins, Piano Vortex is a solid piano trio recording by any measure.
Personnel: Matthew Shipp: piano; Joe Morris: bass; Whit Dickey: drums.