Matthew Shipp has done a praiseworthy thing with an odd outcome in his Blue Series for the Thirsty Ear record label. Shipp has overseen the creation of an important and identifiable sound, a label in the classic sense of old Blue Note and Impulse! records which appealed to the listener by offering a dependable product with a recognizable sound and style. Here, the style (on some of the best releases) is a hybridization of improv and electronica that remains purely jazz - not acid jazz or DJ trickery, but organic jazz groups that incorporate electronicists and turntablists as part of a combo. The two remarkable Spring Heel Jack releases and projects from Tim Berne, DJ Spooky and Guillermo Brown have defined something truly new.
The odd part of it is that Shipp's first flirtation with electronics paled compared to some of the other releases in the series, even though he plays as a sideman on several of them. Last year's Nu Bop - featuring Brown, William Parker and Daniel Carter, with FLAM doing synthesizer and programming duties - was a perplexing record: not bad, but dominated by loud and sometimes mundane beats. While it was an interesting opportunity to hear the rest of the band (especially bassist Parker) react to the grooves, the outcome had nothing of the depth of Spring Heel Jack's meetings with the same acoustic players.
Shipp has reunited with FLAM (this time using a group comprised of Parker, drummer Gerald Cleaver and Khan Jamal on vibes) for a second installment of his own take on the Blue Series eclectic electronics, and with far better results. FLAM's sometimes plodding percussion still makes him a disappointing choice, but this time the record is built more purely around rhythm, with no horn player present, and the electronics have been toned down in the mix, making the ensemble feel more like a group than Nu Bop 's obstacle course.
The quintet for the most part sits squarely in pulse, but this time around the beat-oriented tracks brim with energy and are actually exciting. (FLAM does sit out at the quieter moments, allowing less fixed, more slowly swinging themes to emerge.) The album informs what Nu Bop was attempting, doing so with greater success.
Without a moment to breathe, Shipp's next effort is set to be released this month - a meeting with the NYC rap collective Antipop Consortium. If he's out to upset jazz purists, he's no doubt on the right track. But the results are looking more promising... and purists deserve to be upset anyway.