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Matthew Shipp: Harmony and Abyss

John Kelman By

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Following up pianist Matthew Shipp's Equilibrium, a breakthrough record in a career of musical high points, was clearly a difficult challenge. And, to be sure, as revolutionary as Shipp's career has been and as much a shift in direction as Equilibrium was, his new disk, Harmony and Abyss is more of an evolutionary record, taking the concepts of Equilibrium that extra step further.

Reconvening the same group of players, with the exception of vibraphonist Khan Jamal, there's a little less of a street groove and more of the neoclassical side to Shipp that has emerged gradually over the past few years. Still, the street isn't far away, as "Ion" combines an anthem-like theme with an urban drum groove. But "Virgin Complex," with William Parker's arco bass and Shipp's repetitive theme, is ultimately developed as a piece through FLAM's judicious editing and sound processing. FLAM's role in Shipp's recent efforts has been debated, but in the same way that David Torn, in the role of producer, has added an aural breadth to some of Tim Berne's recent work, so does FLAM expand upon what the musicians play, giving the whole affair a unique and cohesive vibe.

Even though there are clear shifts on the record—"Galaxy 105" is a relatively unaffected free-blowing piece that comes the closest to actually swinging as anything on the disk—the entire record has a sense of unity. "String Theory" may be an exercise in industrial sonics, as a dense, jagged rhythm sets the foundation for Shipp's brooding excursions and FLAM's synthesizers, reverse-looping and other textural contributions colour the space, but it is ultimately of a oneness with tracks including "Amino Acid" which also explore more ambience and sometimes emulation of natural textures.

Trying to assess what to call Shipp's recent work is pointless. There are elements of electronica in the timbres, but there's rarely a breakbeat or techno rhythm to be found. Free jazz, sure, as a short piece like "Invisible Light" is unquestionably a completely spontaneous creation. Neoclassical, absolutely, as tracks including the aforementioned "Ion," as well as "Blood 2 the Brain" would demonstrate. And "Abyss," with its rich soundscape, owes more than a little to the ambient precedence of Brian Eno.

But what ultimately makes Harmony and Abyss not only a standout record on its own, but the next logical step in the development of Matthew Shipp's work since the inception of Thirsty Ear's Blue Series five years back, is the way that he integrates these varied elements into a distinctive sound, and how he manages to gradually reinvent himself with every record he makes. Like a memorable journey, Harmony and Abyss is yet another fine stop on a road that has been distinguished with intriguing and challenging landmarks.

Track Listing: Ion; New ID; 3 in 1; Virgin Complex; Galaxy 501; String Theory; Blood 2 the Brain; Invisible Light; Amino Acid; Abyss

Personnel: Matthew Shipp (piano, synthesizer), William Parker (bass), Gerald Cleaver (drums), FLAM (slicing, dicing, synthesizers and programming)

Title: Harmony And Abyss | Year Released: 2004 | Record Label: Thirsty Ear Recordings

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