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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.

AAJ: Then you moved to Boston to study and eventually moved to New York City, where you encountered various creative beings such as William Parker and many more. You've been living in the East Village since you moved here. What is NYC to you? Do you think living in NYC has contributed to the growth of your musicianship?

MS: I lived in Boston for a year before I moved to New York City, but moving to the city in 1983 was an act of liberation for me. My musical personality was formed when I moved here although I had a style of my own that had already started to unfold. So, it was not a matter of finding myself, but it was a matter of driving deeper and deeper into the underground stream that is me or the not me that becomes me.

New York was so open in the early '80s and I felt socially at home like nowhere else I had ever been. I was made to live in New York and I was able to find friends and people to work here the second I arrived. I was hanging out in the circle of artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat in my early days in the city and I was a fixture also as a dancer in the New York club scene. I don't know where I got the energy. I was practicing piano a lot, working a day job for the first seven years and hanging out at dance and jazz clubs. There is some dynamic of form and content as to who I am and what it means to be a contemporary artist at this time in history. New York reflects in my work and life even for someone whose music is as interior to me as it is. You can't help but be influenced by the energy and rhythm of this city.

AAJ: You spent admirable years being part of ensembles of two great master musicians: Roscoe Mitchell and David S. Ware—The Note Factory with Roscoe and the David S. Ware Quartet with David. How long were you with them? Can you tell us about the experiences? How did working with them affect the world of your own? How different is it to play in other musicians' groups compared to playing in your own band, the Matthew Shipp Trio?

MS: My two highest profile gigs as a sideman were with David S. Ware and with Roscoe Mitchell. When I moved to New York at the age of 22, I was not thinking in terms of sideman gigs. I had my own world going and pretty much wanted to swim in that. I was doing duos with an alto great, Rob Brown, at the time—Rob and I moved to New York at the same time—I had known Rob in Boston. The situation with Ware happened because he was looking for a pianist. It felt right from the first time we played and I ended up being in the band for 16 years as an integral part of the rhythmic section, and it turned out to be more of collaboration than a sideman gig even though it was clearly his band.

I had admired Roscoe since I was a teen and I went after him. Billy Bang gave me Roscoe's address and I mailed him my first album and he hired me from that. The first aspect of being a sideman is the exposure it gives you and as a young kid, of course, that was invaluable in both bands. Even though I had my own ideas about what I wanted to do with my own music, I really cherish the time spent in both bands. It really gave me an opportunity for some good work; having my own language and making it work within someone else's vision. The whole initial "attack-syntax-intent" and the worldview are completely different from my own music in these bands. However, I am up to the challenge of giving support to a horn player and working within his universe. It actually expands my language both from having to make what I do malleable to work within their visions. Secondly, dealing with their languages different from mine, with some aspects been overlapped, it expands both universes simultaneously; theirs and mine. I guess I can never be 100 percent me except within my own world, but in these two instances, I feel like I was able to construct a real role for myself.

AAJ: The word "jazz" is commonly accepted as the terminology for the kind of music you are involved in. What do you think of the word "jazz"? Do you accept it as a norm? What about the term "free jazz"?

MS: I don't know if I am a jazz player or what jazz is. I really don't give a fuck about jazz even though I love most of the historical people you would consider jazz artists. It's just a word to me. It's functional. I have yet to ever be able to locate the jazz in what people call jazz. I think in terms of universal vibration. I intercept universal vibration and pulse. If I am in public and someone asks me what I do for a living, it's not easy to say that I intercept universal vibration and pulse and translate that to lyrical phrases on the piano. It is just easier to say I am a jazz musician. But what I do is to intercept universal vibration and translate it to lyrical phrases on the piano. If it happens to fall into what people call jazz, then so be it. The clothes are the universal vibrations; the hangers the clothes are hung on is sometimes what people in the English language refer to as jazz. I am just digging into a deep language pool or field that the gods have given me to partake in. I have no reason why I've been given this language system. Nor do I give a fuck. It's just what I do.
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