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Matthew Shipp


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I'm dealing with two string instruments, so I can kind of give off the veneer or the buzz of a modern chamber group, but yet the essence of what we're exploring is very heavily jazz.
Producer, composer, sideman, and soloist Matthew Shipp arrived in New York City 20 years ago, and in the interim has become arguably the most important player on the downtown avant-garde scene. Throughout the ‘90s, initially with the David S. Ware quartet, then as a leader most often with bassist William Parker at his side, Shipp recorded with Roscoe Mitchell, Rob Brown, Roy Campbell, Wadada Leo Smith, Other Dimensions in Music and with violinist Mat Maneri and Parker in the Matthew Shipp String Trio. Recently, Shipp has distinguished himself as the Artistic Director of the Thirsty Ear Blue Series. Shipp's own playing blends modern classical elements with '60s-style jazz to create something wholly original and influential among his generation of improvising musicians.

All About Jazz: What does the Artistic Director of the Thirsty Ear Blue Series do?

Matthew Shipp: In a lot of ways I'm just a figurehead, but actually, A&R. I bring artists in, help Peter [Gordon, head of Thirsty Ear] conceive projects. Conceive ways of promoting various projects.

AAJ: Are there people outside of the label who come to you and say, "Matt, I'd like to do a record for Thirsty Ear."?

MS: Yeah, but Peter and I basically sit and put our heads together and come up with a whole series of ideas. People do approach us, but it's so difficult out here, we kind of have to work in a certain way. We can't just sign somebody out of the blue, I mean, unless the conditions were really right for that.

AAJ: What convinces you to put something on record?

MS: I love the medium. I'm a very concentrated person in the studio, and I really love the whole creative process that goes into conceiving and putting out an album. I really thrive off the idea of documents that are part of my personality. The music on a CD, if you could look into my brain and maybe X-ray it, that CD is in my brain, and yet it takes form in the world and it's sold over the counter as product, and people go in their house and put it on and that just fascinates me.

AAJ: What identifies you as a leader of a session?

MS: There's a certain will that I exert to get a certain effect. If the will is coming from me to get that effect, and it's unrelenting in a certain direction and it's completely coming from me, then you have your blueprint for that CD. The idea of the Sorcerer Sessions was to bring classical musicians together with some jazz avant-garde players and create this new, ambient-sounding, quasi-classical, quasi-modern jazz type of thing. I've been working in that area for a long time anyway, so we brought some classical musicians in, Evan Ziporyn (clarinets) and Daniel Bernard Roumain (violin), that don't usually record in a jazz setting, and it just made for a slightly different type of result.

AAJ: Who are you listening to that has influenced this new sound?

MS: I don't know if it's who I'm listening to other than maybe an overall cultural thing. I think living in an urban setting like New York City, having the type of friends I have, it just seems to be in the air. For instance, some of the electronica people I've collaborated with are people around my age group, maybe a little younger sometimes. We share a common world view and common artistic goals, it just happens that I play jazz and they might play a different type of music like Anti-Pop Consortium, DJ Spooky, Spring Heel Jack. When I talk with them I feel at home with them, even though we're sort of in different genres. In essence, we're trying to get at a lot of the same things in our music, we may just have a slightly different outward veneer, but that outward veneer can be melted away to try and get to the essence, the core, and at that point genre doesn't become an issue, it's just modern music. I listen to that type of music and I like it, so it just feels natural to say that modern jazz and it have a meeting point.

AAJ: How do some of the other players in the Blue Series, like Mat Maneri and William Parker, influence your music, and how do you influence each other?

MS: That's very interesting because we're all very different people, but yet we can play together, and easily play together. When I play with Mat Maneri and William Parker it's like, "Ahh". It feels right. Yet we're very, very different people. Very, very different musicians. I think William and I are very much intuitively in tune with each other. He's a generation before me, but for some reason we share this similar thing in this period of the music. We're both trying to take the music forward together, in a certain way together. Living in the 21st century, we both had a very religious background, a sense of how mysticism and religion translate into the language of free jazz, and there's a certain worldview with the avant-garde that comes out of a certain type of mysticism. Sun Ra had it. Coltrane had it. But both of them in different ways. I think William and I share in the understanding of that. But we also understand that living in the times that we do, we can't be Sun Ra or Coltrane. We have to be some fresh phenomena that's relevant to the world today. Mat Maneri also comes out of that very specific nexus of what the jazz avant-garde was in the ‘60s. He and I have a real understanding, or a real feel together, of how in an expanded harmonic way, and an expanded intervalic way, taking aspects from atonal music or early 20th century classical music and really expanding that into how that would organically work in a jazz vocabulary. I think Mat and I can breathe that way together.

AAJ: The three of you are in the String Trio. What does the String Trio do for you musically that a traditional piano trio or quartet wouldn't?

MS: It gives me a base to try to pretend to be a classical musician, because I'm dealing with two string instruments, so I can kind of give off the veneer or the buzz of a modern chamber group, but yet the essence of what we're exploring is very heavily jazz.

AAJ: Recent CD releases have demonstrated a movement towards incorporating strings into avant-garde jazz music. What is it in the air, as you say, that accounts for the recent movement of free jazz players to incorporate strings into their music?

MS: I think in this period a lot of musicians, even if they would claim not to be, are into aurally assaulting people, and there have been so many negatives thrown at avant-garde jazz, especially in the power setting. At one level, that's the attractiveness and the energy and the whole thrust of the music, that it can be an assault at times on people, even though there's a lot of beauty there. But I think there's a movement to temper the qualities that are traditionally thought of in the avant-garde with the sensibility that the strings bring, which is a very sweet, tender sensibility.

AAJ: Are there people you would like to work with, inside jazz or outside?

MS: More outside jazz. We're doing a project with Philip Jeck, a turntablist. There's another turntablist, Christian Marclay. I don't know him, I've never talked with him, but I'm kind of really into turntablists these days. My major goal is to play jazz, but it's very scary playing jazz music, there are not many opportunities out here, and once you really look at the essence of that, then you're really forced to take things into your own hands to create an opening for yourself. At the end of the day, what you're aiming for is to be able to go somewhere, sit down, do a concert, be yourself, and that's groovy. That's what all of that is for.

Visit Thirsty Ear on the web at www.thirstyear.com .

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