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Matthew Shipp: Let's Do Lunch!

Yuko Otomo By

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I play for myself; the act of playing is like a prayer or a meditation to me. —Matthew Shipp
When Matthew Shipp asked me to design the cover art for his Points album (Silkheart Records, 1992), I showed him works from the on-going drawing study I was engaged in. He picked one graphite drawing and said, "Wow! This is exactly what's happening inside my mind when I play the piano!"

Here, we talk of the history of his musicianship; creative process; spirituality; interest in literature and life in New York City. I am blessed to have known him on many levels for such a long time.

Hope you'll enjoy the following interview as much as we did.

All About Jazz: Poet Steve Dalachinsky and I met you right after you moved to NYC in the '80s. I still remember the day you quit your day job at Barnes & Noble. We went to the wedding of you and Delia. We share many mutual friends. We've been friends for a long time on such a genuine level. Creatively, we've done some good collaborations. Steve has written liner notes for some of your CDs, and I've done cover art for them as well, such as Points, Zo (Rise, 1993), Phenomena of Interference (Hopscotch, 2005), Cosmic Suite (Not Two Records, 2008), SaMa (Not Two Records, 2009) and Broken Partials (Not Two, 2010). Steve has read his poetry with you; in fact, Phenomena of Interference is a duet CD by you and him. I did the introduction for the book Logos & Language: A Post-Jazz Metaphorical Dialogue (RogueArt, 2008) that you and Steve did together with our photographer friend Lorna Lentini. I also wrote Matthew Shipp Appreciation for All About Jazz back in the August 2015 and that writing became the liner note for The Conduct of Jazz (Thirsty Ear, 2015).

Most of all, Steve and I have been big fans of your music. We've been following you around; rarely have we missed a chance to see you play since you started your career in the city. I wonder how many times we've seen you play in various formations and in different venues over the years. It's been wonderful to be able to witness every detail of your development as a musician and as a human being.

The first question I'd like to ask you is on the genesis of your creative life. You told me you started it very young, at the age of five or six. Do you recall any of the earliest episodes or moments that gave you a confirmation for the path you would take as a musician? What were your teenage days like? What kind of music did you listen to besides jazz then? You mentioned that your mother knew Clifford Brown. I'm curious about the early period of your life. Can you talk about that?

Matthew Shipp: The genesis of one's creative life is a labyrinth that is very hard to unravel. Often looking back, you see a pattern or how the pieces fell together, although at the time you were dealing with instinct and impulses without knowledge about how the pieces would cohere. I am talking in very broad metaphysical terms because I don't think there is much to gain with telling anyone the nuts and bolts of my musical development. The psychological journey is more important than the actual bricks and mortar.

One can practice the same things Art Tatum did or Bill Evans did, but the same material will not work for you the way it worked for them. Someone can practice the same materials you did and study the same things you did but things still will not fall together for them as it does for you. So, the question then becomes what was the spiritual journey or psychological journey you were on. And if you end up with your own style, where did you get the impulse to play wrong—because what you figure out for yourself and what is original with you would have to be wrong by any academic way of looking at things. And where did you get the balls to say I am going my own way? How do you develop the trust in yourself? Other than the bricks and mortar of musical language, how do you wed your imagination to your instrument? I had many, many experiences as a kid or a teenager that gave me glimpses into who I was to become. It's always been about the synthesis of all the things I have some insight into whether it is piano or a gnostic application of a mutation of esoteric Christianity to a jazz phraseology... think "Philip K. Dick meeting with Sun Ra" ...or, if it is physicality, as it relates to a keyboard language and how the brain generates pulse and rhythm (boxing and jazz) and how that then relates to an inanimate object that in English we call "a piano." We all have an intense inner life of sorts. Being an artist means to make that inner life a language that is dynamic and is in flux as all languages are, but yet with some degree of consistency that is you. But it's all a fucking mystery anyway.

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