Matthew Shipp & the Roy Campbell/Joe McPhee Quartet in Antwerp

John Sharpe By

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They navigated in and out of such forms with practiced ease, negotiating transitions, solos and group interaction with preternatural assurance
Matthew Shipp and the Roy Campbell/Joe McPhee Quartet
Tribute to Albert Ayler
deSingel International Arts Center
Antwerp, Belgium
September 6, 2008

Themed around the iconoclastic '60s saxophonist Albert Ayler, the evening's fare at the modern deSingel International Arts Center on the edge of Antwerp city center was an intriguing mix of the new, the old and, in terms of the heritage underpinning what we heard, even the older. Proceedings commenced with a late afternoon screening of the documentary My Name is Albert Ayler, which I missed, but then continued with a solo set by pianist Matthew Shipp, followed by the Roy Campbell/Joe McPhee Quartet's Tribute to Albert Ayler. Seating was set up on the stage of the large Blauwe Zaal, making for an intimate space, which allowed unamplified performance, except for the bass. Excellent acoustics combined with a respectful audience resulted in a wonderful ambience in which even the quietest sounds rang out with absolute clarity.

Shipp, clad in a black Vision9 T-shirt, pierced the anticipatory hush with the lyrical shimmering of "Patmos" from his solo outing One (Thirsty Ear, 2005), beginning a non-stop journey just shy of an hour. Both old and new were accounted for in the seamless outpouring, with standards enveloped inside the pianist's own themes. Solo, Shipp invested even more in repeated rhythmic patterns than with his latest trio of Joe Morris and Whit Dickey. Even so his sound could take on an almost classical austerity until familiar chord patterns or heads appeared blinking amid the stabbing and pounding keys. Once engaged with a standard, Shipp's method was to isolate some kernel from the tune and then test it to destruction. So a florid fancy might be punctuated by an avalanche of repeated two-handed clusters, until he released the tension with a fleeting reference to the tune, then perhaps slow-mo flailing at the keyboard, or juxtaposing a treble figure with the right hand against crashes from the palm and heel of his left hand.

Halfway through, "Key Swing," a current Shipp mainstay from Piano Vortex (Thirsty Ear, 2007), burst from the mix before being subjected to all manner of indignities, though nonetheless maintaining clearer links to the mother lode than has been sometimes apparent in his trio deconstructions. Shipp became increasingly animated, stomping his foot as if to release excess energy, before a more romantic passage, incorporating fragments of the theme in the treble register, which returned in its pomp, only to then segue into an elegant promenade.

Such contrasts in attack, dynamics and timbres were the currency in which Shipp traded, sound pitched against sound, rather than silence, in the unceasing flow. Another composition from One, "Module" with its juxtaposition of two motifs in succession, signaled another rich vein for inspection, developed with a crystalline beauty, before Shipp quietened to silence, prompting enthusiastic applause from the rapt audience. Their appreciation was rewarded with a brief encore: a fast rolling line, evolved into subterranean rumbling, presaging a prancing passage, stabbing hands and a sudden stop.

After a brief interval, the concert resumed with the Roy Campbell/Joe McPhee Quartet's Tribute to Albert Ayler. Not content with being the featured horn in one Ayler tribute band (Marc Ribot's Spiritual Unity), trumpeter Roy Campbell has convened an all-star group to further celebrate the tragic saxophonist's legacy. Alongside him in the front line was multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, here on tenor and soprano saxophones and pocket trumpet, while the propulsive duties resided in vastly experienced percussionist Warren Smith and bassist William Parker, who has long been pivotal to the NYC free jazz scene. This aggregation is not new: they played together in a well received set at the 2003 Vision Festival, but this short tour was their first time under the Ayler moniker.

While several Ayler tunes emerged from the cut and thrust of the two free flowing pieces comprising the 65-minute set, they also sat alongside gospel and spiritual songs, recorded by Ayler, making explicit links between the saxophonist and his church and gospel heritage. Of course, the context within which they are heard has changed --- what was once new and shocking has become the touchstone for what producer Bob Rusch has termed "the mellow avant-garde." That phrase was coined with regard to McPhee's Trio X, but equally applies to the output of this group. With each member having played in this art form for longer than Ayler was on the planet, it is no surprise that they navigated in and out of such forms with practiced ease, negotiating transitions, solos and group interaction with preternatural assurance.


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