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Matthew Shipp: A Dozen Essential Albums

Matthew Shipp: A Dozen Essential Albums

Courtesy Karl Ackermann


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An intrinsic value in Matthew Shipp's music is his insight into the language of his chosen profession. The processes that have led to one hundred years of change in jazz are embedded in his compositions and improvisations.
While he was still in his fifties, some pundits were hailing Matthew Shipp as the "elder statesman" of avant-garde jazz piano. The sentiment, if not the Stonehenge-like title, was spot on. The Wilmington, Delaware native grew up in jazz, with trumpeter Clifford Brown being a family friend. Shipp began studying piano at age 6 and later studied under Joe Maneri at the New England Conservatory of Music. A prolific composer, improviser, and producer, Shipp also served as Creative Director for Thirsty Ear Recordings.

Shipp moved to New York City in the mid-1980s. In 1988 he recorded his first album as a leader, Sonic Explorations (Cadence Jazz Records), a duo with Rob Brown. As part of the late saxophonist David S. Ware's group, Shipp appeared on nineteen albums. The pianist values his professional relationships, often recording unfamiliar music in familiar company. He has so far appeared on more than twenty recordings each, with saxophonist Ivo Perelman and bassist William Parker. Other regular collaborators include Michael Bisio, Guillermo E. Brown, Daniel Carter, Kevin Ray, Whit Dickey, Newman Taylor Baker, and Mat Walerian.

Shipp's style, whether covering "Summertime" or dissecting the inner attributes of "The Multiplication Table," is inimitable. He has been compared to Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, Thelonious Monk, Morton Feldman, and combinations of all those artists. But Shipp imitates no one, and his unique language is constantly evolving, and unmistakable. Shipp has—on rare occasions—dabbled in modern classical music and the hip-hop genre as on the under-recognized Antipop Vs. Matthew Shipp (Thirsty Ear, 2003). The following albums are not the only Matthew Shipp projects worth checking out, but they represent a cross-section of the artist's interests and settings.

The Core Trio featuring Matthew Shipp
The Core Trio Live, featuring Matthew Shipp
Evil Rabbit Records

What we have here is no-nonsense free improvisation where the track titles are chronologically functional but the music has a mind of its own. The Core Trio, who in direct opposition to that kind of pragmatic naming convention, have consistently performed and recorded as a small combo with an additional guest. Robert Boston, Steve Swell, and Tim Hagans have each joined the "core" trio being at the heart of a quartet. For the second time, on The Core Trio Live, Featuring Matthew Shipp, they team with the avant-garde pianist, this time capturing a live performance.

The Houston, Texas-based group consists of saxophonist Seth Paynter, bassist Thomas Helton and drummer Joe Hertenstein, the latter being the only member not part of the group originally founded by Helton. Recorded at a 2014 performance at Houston's Ovations Night Club, the free improvisations of "Before the Break" and "After the Break" are subtly organized, never descending into all-out pandemonium. Each piece clocks in at slightly more than one-half hour, Shipp and Paynter up front in both, instigating bits of melodies and discord, allowing each other to add their individual ideas to the structure. Helton and Hertenstein, judiciously control the momentum while allowing the leads to freely explore.

All four players find ample space to cut loose on these two improvisations though Helton appears to function more as the guide and the glue. Shipp has a number of Cecil Taylor moments of thundering chords and torrents of notes, but eventually finds his way back to a more lyrical center. Similarly, Paynter, at times, wails ferociously, though longer melodic lines are his sweet spot. The Core Trio Live, Featuring Matthew Shipp succeeds where much live, free improvisation fails—it is as listenable as it is audacious.

Track Listing: Before the Break; After the Break.

Personnel: Seth Paynter: tenor saxophone; Thomas Helton: double bass; Joe Hertenstein: drums; Matthew Shipp: piano.

Matthew Shipp
The Piano Equation
Tao Forms

The Piano Equation reveals the pianist contemplating past experiments if only as a platform for the future; a foundation for yet another new conception. Seeing words like "equation," "vortex," or "cosmic" in Shipp's titles points to a theoretical approach that the composer's loyal audiences are accustomed to. But, as always, Shipp's artistic presentation, imaginative ideas, and technique are rarely a set-up for repeating history.

The Piano Equation captures fifteen solo originals, co-produced with Shipp's frequent colleague, drummer Whit Dickey. The compositions do not uniformly reflect whatever elevated analytics led to their development. The title track, "Piano in Hyperspace," and "Tone Pocket" feature becalming, sometimes pastoral melodies, not without the razor-sharp underscoring that jolts the ears. On "Swing Note From Deep Space" and "Clown Pulse" Shipp blends earlier jazz influences with free expression in highly-textured creations. At the most unconventional end of the spectrum, he gives us "Vortex Factor," "Radio Signals Equation" and "Cosmic Juice." Within each piece, Shipp builds near-impenetrable layers of sound, just allowing occasional streams of light to pass through.

Each track on The Piano Equation is an adventure in cryptic communication. There is tension and incendiary energy with an expansive and sophisticated architecture holding all the complexity together. In his solo projects, Shipp's large-scale improvisations lend a beefy but inviting quality to the music. It's been a long-time goal of Shipp to redefine jazz piano and—at sixty—he says that he still has "something to say." He says it here, in a language all his own.

Track Listing: Piano Equation; Swing Note from Deep Space; Piano In Hyperspace; Vortex Factor; Land of the Secrets; Void Equation; Tone Pocket; Clown Pulse; Radio Signals Equation; Emission; Cosmic Juice.

Personnel: Matthew Shipp: piano.

Okuden Quartet: Mat Walerian/Matthew Shipp/William Parker/Hamid Drake
Every Dog Has His Day But It Doesn't Matter Because Fat Cat Is Getting Fatter
ESP Disk

A student of eastern philosophy and Japanese culture, reed player/composer Mat Walerian coined the Okuden series name from a Japanese word meaning "inner teachings." Walerian had studied piano at six and taught himself saxophone while in his teens. He expanded his self-taught regime to include clarinet and flute in 2008-9. Walerian has sporadically taken lessons from Matthew Shipp. His musical interests are broad and he had earlier played classical Japanese music, heavy metal, psychedelic, funk, and jazz. Walerian's original music continues to incorporate elements of chamber, jazz masterworks and Asian scales, all while facing to leading-edge statements of improvised music. On the double-CD Every Dog Has Its Day But It Doesn't Matter Because Fat Cat Is Getting Fatter Walerian leads a quartet with Shipp, William Parker and Hamid Drake.

The saxophone quartet is a familiar setting for Shipp and Parker, permanent members of David S. Ware's seminal free jazz group. Drake too appeared on two tracks of Ware's Live In The World (Thirsty Ear, 2005). Each player has also worked with reed artist Daniel Carter. Walerian has a matchless style shaped by many influences but attributable to none in particular.

Walerian composed the eight pieces on Every Dog Has Its Day..., each running into double digits in length, and the moods vary greatly across the two discs. "The Forest Council" opens the first disc with a portentous Parker solo. Walerian's bass clarinet adds another layer of sinister effects, which neither Shipp nor Drake diminish upon their later entrance. Shipp shares the front line with Walerian on "Thelonious Forever" which features a blistering solo from Drake. On "Magic World Pt. 1," the clarinet conjures up the deep roots of the swing tradition, melded with an exploration of the instrument's complete range.

Track Listing: CD 1: The Forest Council; Thelonious Forever; Magic World Pt. 1—Study; Magic World Pt. 2—Work; Magic World Pt. 3—Life; CD 2: Sir Denis; Business With William; Lesson II.

Personnel: Mat Walerian: alto saxophone, bass clarinet, soprano clarinet, flute; Matthew Shipp: piano; William Parker: bass; Hamid Drake: drums. Additional Instrumentation: Mat Walerian: William Parker: shakuhachi; Hamid Drake: drums.

Matthew Shipp Trio
Piano Song
Thirsty Ear Recordings

Shipp's trio includes bassist Michael Bisio, a regular Shipp collaborator since Art of the Improviser (Thirsty Ear, 2011). The two demonstrate a synergistic work relationship in the midst of Shipp's often asymmetrical approach. The accomplished drummer Newman Taylor Baker joined Shipp's trio with the release of The Conduct of Jazz (Thirsty Ear, 2015), and has proven to be a perfectly attuned successor to the rhythmic Whit Dickey.

Within Piano Song, Shipp touches on elements that would have been at home on a number of his previous projects, which is not to say that there isn't a consistency to the material as presented here. The piano solo "Links" opens the album as a reflective motif, quietly setting the stage for the hard-bop "Cosmopolitan," an early highlight of the album. The longest piece in the collection features outstanding solos from all members. More holistically striking are the compositions "Blue Desert" and "Void of Sea" while "Microwave" and "Gravity Point" are fast-paced and angular with prominent block chords dropping in for dramatic effect. The title track closes Piano Song as it had opened; a contemplative finish to a varied program.

Track Listing: Links; Cosmopolitan; Blue Desert; Silence Of; Flying Carpet; Scrambled Brain; Microwave; Mind Space; Void of Sea; The Nature Of; Gravity Point; Piano Song.

Personnel: Matthew Shipp: piano; Michael Bisio: bass; Newman Taylor Baker: drums.

Bobby Kapp / Matthew Shipp
Northern Spy

After a productive period in the 1960s, drummer Bobby Kapp revived his career at the start of the millennium. Among his latter projects was The Fine Wine Trio with pianist Richard Wyands and bassist Gene Perla. The group was commissioned by the U.S. State Department to tour Africa and Jordan as "Jazz Ambassadors." That music, being decidedly mainstream, did not reflect Kapp's free jazz affinity having played with the likes Archie Shepp and much more recently with alto saxophonist Noah Howard on Between Two Eternities (Self-Produced, 2009). Throughout four decades, whether playing lounge jazz or avant-garde, Kapp has flown significantly and inexplicably below the radar.

In polar opposition, we have Matthew Shipp. A force of nature whose readily identifiable style has made him one of the most notable and recognizable pianists. Music, being the great equalizer, brought the two together as half of Kapp's quartet on the excellent (and grossly under-recognized) Themes 4 Transmutation (Self-Produced, 2014) and then to this outstanding duo outing, Cactus.

The nine-track set opens with "Overture" and finds Shipp taking the time to explore the antecedents and consequences of each facet of the piece. As he does so, Kapp shifts position frequently, sometimes in accord, often in contrast, and eventually utilizes the entire kit to make his own distinctive statement. The bluesy motif of "Before" is more organized at the outset but moves into freer territory towards its conclusion. Kapp provides an extended and thundering introduction to "During" before Shipp heads down a path moving from abstraction to lyricism. A standout piece is "Money"; again, featuring a long opening solo from Kapp, this time both complex and nuanced. Shipp's playing here is sprightly and expressive, his angular approach softened but not completely exenterated.

Cactus is impressive from both musical and organization standpoints. The symmetry between Kapp and Shipp suggests nothing less than two players who can manage the balance of structure and freedom while having no tolerance for ambiguity. The music is engaging from beginning to end and, more importantly, there is an element of surprise in each piece that makes the overall album extremely satisfying. Kapp is now seventy-four and it's about time for him to get some higher level of recognition. With the Shipp brand in play, Cactus may be the album to move the needle.

Track Listing: Overture; Before; During; Money; Cactus;After; Good Wood; Snow Storm Coming; Drum-a-Phone; The 3rd Sound.

Personnel: Bobby Kapp: drums; Matthew Shipp: piano

East Axis
Cool With That
ESP Disk

Free improvisation has a special place in a polarized world. It accepts and rejects jazz culture in an ebb and flow of unprompted ideas. On the album Cool With That we get the essence of the music's history from the inside, out. The quartet East Axis is new in name but the unit has been in place for several years and its members are well-known. Pianist Matthew Shipp, saxophonist Allen Lowe, bassist Kevin Ray and drummer Gerald Cleaver are at the top of the elite in creative music.

In August 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic experienced a relative lull between peaks in the NYC area. The quartet went into a Brooklyn studio with little in the way of preparation. They came out with an excellent finished product. A lot is going on inside Cool With That, much of it simultaneously. These extended improvisations require elastic thinking and focused attention to keep the music from going off the rails. "A Side" shows a command of endurance and timing as the twelve-minute journey avoids crossing the same ground more than once. Shipp and Ray open the topical "Social Distance" with slow blues, soon joined by Lowe's empathetic deep tenor. The moody, serpentine sax owns much of this piece and serves as a calling card for the under-recognized Lowe. At almost a half-hour, "One" is an expedition and primer in spur-of-the-moment interaction. Approaching frenetic at times, Shipp seamlessly guides the music with his abundant penchant for blending accessibility and freedom. His interactions with Ray and Cleaver are constantly setting new ideas in motion.

Track Listing: A Side; Oh Hell I Forgot About That; Social Distance; I'm Cool with That; One.

Personnel: Matthew Shipp: piano; Gerald Cleaver: drums; Allen Lowe: saxophone; Kevin Ray: bass.

Michael Bisio/Matthew Shipp
The Flow of Everything
Fundacja Słucha

Throughout their frequent partnerships, Michael Bisio and Matthew Shipp have raised the bar on improvisation to a level that suggests an exceptional symbiotic form of structure. The Polish label Fundacja Słuchaj issues The Flow of Everything, Bisio and Shipp's third duo album and their first in six years.

The opener, "Flow," is a brilliant nine-plus minute demonstration of these artists' ability to execute the unexpected. In tandem and apart Bisio and Shipp create a tableau of quiet thunder, Duke Ellington, and Art Tatum, rolled into an avant-garde collage. Bisio completely alters the mood with his arco introduction to "Bow of Everyone." With back-and-forth distortion, he sets up a gently melodic entrance for Shipp, leading down a darkly prosaic path.

The midsection of The Flow of Everything consists of pieces laden with fresh peculiarities and inquisitive musical ideas. "Of Now," "Of Everything" and "Pockets" each incorporate melodic channels into turbulent waters, and "Go Flow" plays like an asymmetrical lullaby. The title track is the most overtly cryptic improvisation on the album but the concluding "Panel" restores tranquility before it draws to a close.

Shipp's mastery of the contrasting poles of density and fragility, and Bisio's evasion of pyrotechnics, render free improvisation more accessible. The challenge, and the pleasure, of listening to The Flow of Everything, is that one cannot be certain how things will play out between Bisio and Shipp. Even when sharing a joint vision, there are times when the listener can find it difficult to decipher the stealthy language of the duo. That's all to the good as this ecstatic music benefits from blurring the line between thought and spontaneous performance; freeing the listener from the grip of relevance. The Flow of Everything is an absorbing album, animated, exciting, and completely different.

Tracks: Flow; Bow For Everyone; Everything; Of Now; Of Everything; Go-Flow; Flow Of Everything; Pockets; Panel.

Personnel: Michael Bisio: bass, acoustic; Matthew Shipp: piano.

Matthew Shipp
Tao Forms

An intrinsic value in Matthew Shipp's music is his insight into the language of his chosen profession. The processes that have led to one hundred years of change in jazz are embedded in his compositions and improvisations. More than a dozen solo piano albums into his thirty-five-year recording career, Codebreaker, Shipp's latest such effort, furthers his exceptional amalgam of spontaneous improvisation and historical authenticity. More concise than many of the pianist's projects, the compact pieces serve to highlight the expressive content of several performances, intensified by Shipp's moderation.

The content on Codebreaker is more euphonious than the pianist's recent solo outings, but it is a relative correlation. The album is more melodic, but it is so through Shipp's lyrically oblique worldview. He lets listeners discern that for themselves if there is a more resounding theme across the eleven compact tracks. Still, the transition from the tranquil opening title track to "Spiderweb" and then "Disc" depicts a loose trajectory. By the time we get to the second half with "Green Man," logic has developed. Shipp has cracked the combination, and we can hear the pieces falling together in the pin tumbler. When Codebreaker concludes with "The Tunnel," it is with an exhalation of relief.

Shipp is doing more than creating music; he regularly preserves part of jazz heritage in danger of being pulled out from under its creators. In that process, his influences are many, some celebrated and others lost to history. The brilliance of his creations is that Shipp never sounds as if he is taking his cue from anyone. There is dignified intelligence and warm, if elusive, appeal in Codebreaker. While it may be Shipp's most accessible solo work to date, that should not be mistaken for a less challenging listen.

Track Listing: Codebreaker; Spiderweb; Disc; Code Swing; Letter From The Galaxy; Green Man; Raygun; Suspended; Mystic Motion; Stomp To the Galaxy; The Tunnel.

Personnel: Matthew Shipp: piano.

William Parker -Matthew Shipp
Rogue Art

Matthew Shipp and William Parker are in a space that they arrived at more or less together. The pair first recorded together with the quartet on David S. Ware's Great Bliss, Vol. 1 (Silkheart, 1991). Not long afterward, in 1994, they released Zo, the first of their duo projects, on the now-defunct Rise label; it was reissued on Thirsty Ear in 2016 during Shipp's tenure as the label's artistic director. In a compact setting, that early effort allowed listeners a fuller appreciation of each artist's skills. Almost three decades on, the pair have recorded dozens of albums together in a wide variety of formations.

Re-Union marks their third duo project. It is a fully-improvised session, recorded in a French studio in 2019. The album opens with the epic-length title track. At over twenty minutes, it is classic Shipp, with elements of free improvisation, off-kilter Duke Ellington-esque, and classical influences. Parker's playing is immersed in bop fundamentalism, permeated with melody and energy. On "The New Zo," Shipp and Parker close in on an unknowable target, thundering, and tenaciously hang on. The duo references their album DNA (Thirsty Ear, 1999) with "Further DNA." Unsurprisingly, like its predecessor, it is full of twists and turns which can only be interpreted by listening. The album closes with "Song of Two," a joy ride of improvisation which finishes with a stylish, edgy, back-and-forth between the piano and bass.

Where divergence is the norm, Shipp and Parker demonstrate that they can step into their ancestors' shoes but walk a completely undiscovered road. Their music is an act of resistance in a time when it is needed. Their signature combination of lyricism and atonality on Re-Union will undoubtedly draw comparisons that belie how unique their sound is. Shipp and Parker have an inexhaustible wealth of ideas and they continue to push lines of lucidity and detachment which add to a unique lexicon of creative music.

Track Listing: Re-Union; The New Zo; Further DNA; Song of Two.

Personnel: William Parker: bass; Matthew Shipp: piano.

Daniel Carter / Matthew Shipp / William Parker / Gerald Cleaver
Welcome Adventure! Vol. 1
577 Records

When multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter, bassist William Parker and pianist Matthew Shipp met for an esoteric evening of discussion and music at Tufts University in 2017, the net result was Seraphic Light (AUM Fidelity, 2018). That three-part improvised program was one of the best free improvisation albums of the year. On Welcome Adventure! Vol. 1, the trio expands to a quartet with the addition of drummer Gerald Cleaver. The new formation brings with it a sound different from the first excursion.

Carter has not received the recognition due to him, despite thirty years in New York's downtown scene, playing with some of the best musicians in creative music. His history with Parker and Shipp dates back decades. Carter played six wind instruments on Seraphic Light, often in tone-altering sequences. On Welcome Adventure! Vol. 1 he focuses on his primary instrument, the tenor saxophone, as well as trumpet and flute. Along with the presence of Cleaver, the dynamics move from free-flowing expressiveness to a more visceral sound.

The album opens with the thirteen-minute "Majestic Travel Agency." Among Shipp's experiments has been moving hard-bop into a new direction, an approach he and Parker demonstrated on Nu Bop (Thirsty Ear, 2002). Here, the tactic is enhanced by Carter's thoughtful flowing lines and blues shadings. He and Shipp occasionally engage in give-and-take until Parker switches to bowed bass, and the piece heads to a more ethereal place. The relatively brief "Scintillate" is a beautifully reflective piece, featuring Carter on trumpet, elegantly interacting with Shipp. The twenty-minute closing number, "Ear-regularities," is the freest playing without going over the top. In brief cells, the interactions between Parker and Cleaver are intriguing as are the other combinations from the quartet.

This leaderless group was excellent in their trio format debut, and they surpass that high bar on Welcome Adventure! Vol. 1. The music is, by turns, jubilant, muted, and intelligent; the quartet, with all its history of connectivity, manages to be empathetic without formulas. Shipp, Parker, and Carter come to the project with a wealth of harmonic skills generously shared and exchanged. Cleaver, in a class with the best avant-garde drummers, contributes in ways that can't be overstated. He doesn't just move the music and hold it together; he generates and creates it spontaneously. There is much about Welcome Adventure! Vol. 1 that registers on an emotional level. Volume 2 promises to be just as welcome.

Track Listing: Majestic Travel Agency; Scintillate; Ear-regularities.

Personnel: Daniel Carter: saxophone, alto; Matthew Shipp: piano; William Parker: bass; Gerald Cleaver: drums.

Ivo Perelman / Matthew Shipp
Live in Nuremberg

Perelman and Shipp have released ten duo recordings in the past five years and another dozen in larger group formations. What makes Live in Nuremberg stand out in an already impressive catalog, is how the two perform in the live setting. Their studio albums are packed with compact vignettes but on this album, like Live in Brussels (Leo Records, 2017), Perelman and Shipp's unrestrained enthusiasm is spurred by the live audience. The resulting suite-length performance opens Perelman and Shipp to a new level of creativity.

At almost one-hour "Part I" accounts for most of the album, a four-minute "Encore" closing the recording. As practitioners of free jazz Perelman and Shipp consistently take a refined approach, offering passing tributes to squally free jazz rituals, but more often focusing on individual and paired examinations of sound and its direction. Perelman has an affinity for experimenting in the upper register of the tenor sax and this long-form allows him to explore more broadly, see-sawing through the instrument's wide range. Shipp's brief solo at around the six-minute mark is one of the few times that the duo is not reacting or networking. The sax and piano are rarely at odds; the dialog has a harmonizing quality but avoids resting on a complete symmetry. It is just enough for Perelman and Shipp to push each other.

Live in Nuremberg was recorded at The Art of Improvisation Festival in 2019 and that "art" has infrequently been demonstrated with more class than this album captures. In the most demanding passages, Perelman and Shipp preserve a pleasing sound, often evocative, continuously searching, and never over-the-top. Where there are torrents of notes, they are purposeful, leading to shifts in color and temperament. Listeners unfamiliar with this duo would be well-served to start their exploration with Live in Nuremberg.

Track Listing: Part I; Encore.

Personnel: Ivo Perelman: tenor saxophone; Matthew Shipp: piano.

Matthew Shipp
Invisible Light -Live São Paulo

Invisible Light -Live São Paulo is among the finest of Shipp's solo projects, reflecting the best of what he has cultivated and conceived over three decades and hundreds of recordings. Recorded live at the Factory Festival in 2016, the album opens with "Symbol Systems," the title track of his 1996 solo album (No More), and later recorded on Solo: The Jazz Sessions (Original Spin Records, 2012). As multifaceted as the two previous versions, this one has Shipp slowing the melodic passages at points, making them stand apart and adding a new dimension. "Whole Movement" was originally titled "Wholetone" and appeared on Art of the Improviser (Thirsty Ear, 2011). Here again, Shipp plays with the complex piece to shift emphasis by altering tempo and dynamics, giving the tune a fresh feel. "Blue In Orion," from One (Thirsty Ear, 2005) is extended almost ten minutes beyond the original. Pressure and muffled absolution are amplified throughout the nuevo-classical influences.

Shipp takes on several classics on Invisible Light -Live São Paulo; "Angel Eyes," "On Green Dolphin Street," "There Will Never Be Another You," and "Yesterdays," were previously covered on his solo release Songs (Splasc(h) Records, 2015); "Summertime" appeared on I've Been to Many Places (Thirsty Ear, 2015). In his singular approach, he sets new standards rather than simply reinterpreting old ones.

Shipp's ability to embrace a melody, take it to a flashpoint, and return it somewhat intact, is exceptional. His interpretations of otherwise familiar tunes are saturated with remarkable harmonies, enthusiastic freedom, and elegance; they become curious sequels. Gunther Schuller wrote: "It is a global concept which allows the world's musics—written, improvised, handed-down, traditional, experimental—to come together, to learn from one another, to reflect human diversity and pluralism." This is the space from which Matthew Shipp creates; it enriches us all.

Track Listing: Symbol Systems; Angel Eyes; Whole Movement; On Green Dolphin Street; Invisible Light; There Will Never Be Another You; Blue In Orion; Yesterdays; Patmos; Gamma Ray; Summertime.

Personnel: Matthew Shipp: piano.

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