Matthew Shipp: Multiplication Table, Abbey Road Duos, Un Piano & Cosmic Suite

Kurt Gottschalk By

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Matthew Shipp
Multiplication Table

Evan Parker / Matthew Shipp
Abbey Road Duos

Matthew Shipp
Un Piano

Matthew Shipp Quartet
Cosmic Suite
Not Two

Pianist Matthew Shipp's relationship with jazz has been a long and interesting one. Since his earliest recordings, he has referenced jazz—check the gorgeous reworking of "Summertime" on Zo (Thirsty Ear, 1994), his duet with bassist William Parker—but rarely seems to play it. Standard themes are more likely to pop up like Christmas songs in his thick, blocky repetitions than they are to be played with the sort of flair that jazz is generally supposed to be about. They are building blocks that allow the listener to triangulate: if Gershwin is here and Shipp is here, then Shipp playing Gershwin creates a third dimension.

Which is made doubly fascinating by the fact that he can play the hell out of a jazz song, as on the reissued Multiplication Table, first released in 1998. A sputtering, angular, shape-shifting solo halfway through the disc drops the familiar two-chord "Take the A Train" riff, abandons it, wanders to the lower octaves, teases with jazzy treble trills, restates the first chord but delays the second, then falls away, the powerful rhythm section of Parker and drummer Susie Ibarra stepping in at an impossible pace, within which Shipp returns, now incessantly pounding out the riff in midrange. Only once it is firmly entrenched in deconstruction does Shipp turn the table, playing Billy Strayhorn's tune with elegance and ease. Multiplication Table is from the explosive days of the Shipp/Parker/ Ibarra/David S. Ware/Cooper-Moore reign. The trio also takes on "Autumn Leaves" and "C Jam Blues," interspersing them with Shipp's dense compositions; jazz and free languages are balanced and swapped to surprising effect.

It's a division perhaps more historically British than American, which is why when the pairing of Shipp with saxophonist Evan Parker showed up, it seemed long overdue. John Coxon and Ashley Wales—aka electronica duo Spring Heel Jack—have shown remarkable insight with their label Treader and Abbey Road Sessions is a beautifully engineered, exhilarating album. The warm, rich sound enhances the intelligent adventurousness of the session: two long suites in four parts each which push and pull, the alternating fury and restraint, make it the kind of meeting of masters that becomes greater than its parts.

Restraint against virtuosity is what has made Shipp an increasingly significant player over the years and the solo disc Un Piano makes that argument compellingly. Over the course of a dozen brief studies (only two breaking the five-minute mark), Shipp plays delicately interwoven melodies, brashly romantic flourishes and heavy but precise passages. While he hasn't grown any more inclined to play traditional jazz piano over the years, he has become more lyrical, as evidenced on Piano Vortex (Thirsty Ear, 2007) with drummer Whit Dickey and bassist Joe Morris and now on Cosmic Suite, recorded with the same band and adding Daniel Carter on reeds. Shipp is less given to heavy playing than he once was, leaning more toward overt (if fragmented) beauty.

At another time, this quartet might have made thunder—witness Time is of the Essence; Essence is Beyond Time (AUM, 2000), Shipp's meeting with Carter in the band Other Dimensions of Music—but the nine-part suite here is not a storm but a clear night. The rhythm section is open and easy, yet most notable is hearing Carter sing rather than scream through his horn. Shipp's has been a long road and beauty can be a harder thing to project than fury. But the route has been exciting every inch of the way.

Tracks and Personnel

Multiplication Trio

Tracks: Autumn Leaves; The New Fact; The "C" Jam Blues; ZT1; Take the "A" Train; ZT2; The Multiplication Trio; ZT3.

Personnel: Matthew Shipp: piano; William Parker: bass; Susie Ibarra: drums.

Abbey Road Duos

Tracks: Tenor Suite I; Tenor Suite II; Tenor Suite III; Tenor Suite IV; Soprano Suite I; Soprano Suite II; Soprano Suite III; Soprano Suite IV.

Personnel: Evan Parker: tenor and soprano saxophones; Matthew Shipp: piano.

Un Piano

Tracks: Enter In; Geometry; Sparks; Spike; Linear Shocks; Two Things Together; Whole Zone; Simple Fact; Riddle; Cloud Chamber 6; Harmony of Apollo; Exit Out.

Personnel: Matthew Shipp: piano.

Cosmic Suite

Tracks: Cosmic Suite Part One; Cosmic Suite Part Two; Cosmic Suite Part Three; Cosmic Suite Part Four; Cosmic Suite Part Five; Cosmic Suite Part Six; Cosmic Suite Part Seven; Cosmic Suite Part Eight; Cosmic Suite Part Nine.

Personnel: Matthew Shipo: Piano; Daniel Carter: reeds; Joe Morris: bass; Whit Dickey: drums.

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