A recent blockbuster art show at MoMA featured the German artist Gerhard Richter. Richter works in a variety of mediums, and his work takes different forms from a representational, pictorial style to a totally abstract expressionist, non-pictorial style. But Richter's work bears his strong stamp whether he's going figurative or freer.
One group of paintings featured abstract variations on a figurative theme. The first painting in the group was representational and wonderfully rendered, and the others departed from that theme with varying degrees of abstraction and decoration. The group functioned as a whole, and had a cohesiveness that tempered the abstraction. You could still see the figurative image beneath the abstract energy and that gave the paintings a solid anchor. What does that have to do with NYC avant-pianist Matthew Shipp's new solo recording Songs , on the Italian label Splasc(h) Records, is a session that deconstructs well-known jazz compositions to various degrees. Like Richter, Shipp takes recognizable themes and takes them out but never completely obscures what's underneath his abstract and improvisational energy.
The first track "We Free Kings" is a modification of a familiar Christmas tune (made famous by Roland Kirk). Whoops - I raised my eyebrows when I heard that one. I thought: "Uh-oh, is this some kind of avant-Christmas record?" Thankfully not, although a little commercialism would be acceptable from Shipp he's been slugging it out in the free jazz trenches for years, playing uncompromising and forward-looking music. His other recent release NuBop (Thirsty Ear) has an accessibility and booty-shaking potential, but it's still uncompromising and forward-looking enough to ensure low sales. So forgive Shipp for an Xmas tune. He runs through some recognizable material: "There Will Never Be Another You", "Con Alma", "Angel Eyes", "On Green Dolphin Street", "Bags' Groove", and "Yesterdays". But it's not a standard standards date from the Keith Jarrett School. It's standards from the mind of Matthew Shipp, and he opens himself up here. Without the clutter or strong personalities of his usual sidemen and collaborators he sounds naked. It's all Shipp, working through the tunes, and the results are obtuse and complex. He gets hung up on certain ideas and rides 'em like a wave. He slams the keyboard like a demon and cuts back into light with sparkling and fragmented lines. Like Richter, his work speaks about personal commitment, and embracing form while moving away from it. Shipp's Songs radiates a dark power.
This review first appeared in the September 2002 issue of All About Jazz: New York .