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Matthew Shipp: Poetic Connection


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I still feel the inspiration, and The Piano Equation is about trying to find that ultimate equation.
—Matthew Shipp
It is difficult to describe the impact of pianist and composer Matthew Shipp without descending into hyperbole. A core figure in the now-legendary David S. Ware Quartet, a bandleader with a staggering recording output, a groundbreaking curator for the influential Blues Series of Thirsty Ear Records, Matthew Shipp has also more recently broken new ground at the helm of the extraordinary Matthew Shipp Trio, featuring bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker. Preparing to celebrate his 60th birthday this year, Shipp has also released The Piano Equation [Tao Forms, 2020], a solo piano outing that finds Shipp delivering some of his finest writing amidst gorgeously nuanced playing.

All About Jazz: Let's start with the Zero Lecture you delivered at The Stone in 2017. In it, you describe how "the universe is complete stillness and utter kinetic energy and motion at the same time," and you then expound upon how you portray that on a keyboard. You've also previously described this notion—often using the image of the abyss—as a guiding principle of your work. How do you conceive of that, and how do you approach that in music?

Matthew Shipp: To me, the abyss is everything. It's a matrix, it's a generating principle, and it's the mother. In this type of music—all forms of improvised music—if you're trying to get through whatever puzzle that you have in front of you, you have to deal with creative void state. Even if that's an illusion of sorts, I'm always dealing with generating something from just very basic building blocks and elements. The abyss is a religious symbol in a certain way, and to me the music is a building of a cosmos and religious ritual. The idea of the abyss is what gives my music juice.

AAJ: The notion of search, ritual, and an almost religious experience seems to have been a guiding principle even from your earliest release, Sonic Explorations [Cadence Jazz, 1988] with Rob Brown. Can you talk about that album and about your relationship with Rob?

MS: I met Rob in Boston, before I moved to New York. I was attending New England Conservatory. He had been at the Berklee School of Music but had dropped out. We played quite a bit together in Boston, and then we ended up moving to New York around the same time, so we hooked up right away. When we moved here, he was going to NYU for a little while. We used to get together as often as we could, which sometimes was every day. At the time, he was studying with Lee Konitz and Joe Lovano. We were playing every day, and we were cognizant that we had this time and could develop a language together. It was a daily quest to really keep growing as a duo.

After playing almost every day for a couple of years, we caught up with Bob Rusch at Cadence. I think we had a tape already that we had made somewhere, and he wanted to deal with it. But yeah, the migration from Boston to New York, we just kept playing and developed something together. After that, he ended up recording for Silkheart Records, an album called Breath Rhyme with William Parker and Dennis Charles. That album got quite a lot of really good notice back then; we continued to play duo, but you know I went off to work with David S. Ware. But through the years, Rob and I have continued to play a lot.

AAJ: Going back to your time in Boston, can you talk about your experience at New England Conservatory?

MS: I'm from Wilmington, Delaware, and when I first went to college, it was at the University of Delaware because my father was on the administration at the university. He was a police captain, and after he retired from the police force he ended up going into adult education. He was working for the University of Delaware, so it was free for me. And I went there for a couple of years. I had a couple of really great classical teachers there; basically I studied classical piano there, and I played in the jazz ensemble. I dropped out after two years, because I didn't want to be in school. I was practicing all day and all night, and listening to a lot of records.

I actually studied with Dennis Sandole for a couple of years. He was [John] Coltrane's teacher. It was a complete monastic life where I lived at home with my parents and just practiced. I had a trio of my own that used to play clubs in Philly a lot, and I did a lot of work as a cocktail pianist. So after I studied with Dennis for a couple of years, my intuition told me it was time to move on. I wanted to move to New York, but something told me I just wasn't ready yet. My style of playing wasn't exactly in place yet, because back then I was still kind of a straight-ahead pianist, kind of in between McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans. I knew where I wanted to go, but I wasn't quite there yet.

I decided probably the best thing to do would be to go to Boston for a year. A couple years earlier I did a summer semester at the Berklee School of Music, and played for Ran Blake. I kept in touch with him, and he had been trying to get me to go to the conservatory for the Third Stream Department. I finally ended up taking him up on it, because I felt I needed a little more work before I moved to New York. So I went to New England Conservatory, but I was only there for a year because my whole mind was on New York.

But it was a good year. Musically, I found some real good people to play with, and that was the most important thing: playing every day. There was a tenor player, Gary Joynes, and I kind of forged a partnership with him. And Rob Brown was around, even though even though he wasn't at NEC. It was an interesting year, and my style did coalesce in that year. But after the year was over, I just wanted to move to New York, so I quit school.

AAJ: You mentioned that while in Wilmington, you had a straight-ahead style. If we think about New England Conservatory's creation of the Third Stream Department and its idea of codifying a new language of the music, how do you think that influenced your own career's trajectory?

MS: I think one of the big things that attracted me to NEC was all the people who had been around there. I mean, I didn't study with Jaki Byard—I don't know if he was there at the time—but George Russell was there, Ran was there, and there was the allure of all the people that were involved in that period when Third Stream Music had its day. You can have an argument about the veracity of the idea of Third Stream in its purest sense and whether it worked or not, but there was active thought around the music that was not mainstream, per se. Maybe not even free jazz, but just very open to every tributary and every way of looking at the music. So I got to be in a situation where I could talk to George Russell in the hallway, and I could get close with Joe Maneri, Mat Maneri's father. There were just a lot of people like that around Boston, all doing things in their different ways. They all had a very expansive view of what the jazz language could be or what the improvisational lifestyle could look like. It was good for my head.

AAJ: After your year at New England Conservatory, you make your way to New York, and by the end of the 1980s you are involved in one of the most iconic quartets of all time. How did you get connected with David S. Ware and the formation of the quartet?

MS: Before I talk about how I met David, it's important to first talk about how I met William Parker. When I moved to New York, one of the major things I wanted to do was meet and play with William Parker. I had first heard him on one of Cecil Taylor's records for Hat Art. I knew William was a lot younger than Cecil, but he seemed to me to be somebody that was the embodiment of a lot of the aspects the 1960s avant-garde, but he related to what the world was in the early 1980s. He embraced all those old energies but in a new way, and he was the bridge to the new generation. I remember getting that feeling the first time I heard him on a Cecil Taylor album, not knowing much about him. My knowledge of him got deeper hearing something he did with Jemeel Moondoc. It really occurred to me that there was this school of music going on in the Lower East Side that was related to the Cecil Taylor aesthetic, but it was younger people doing their own thing. So when I moved here, one of the major things I really wanted to do was play with William Parker.

I think the first time I met William, I had been in the city for a week or so, and I went to a concert at a Latin Community Center. Billy Bang did a concert, and William was playing with him. I think I just went up to William after and introduced myself. A week later I actually ran into him on the street and we had a long conversation. I just remember somehow I got him a tape of mine and he seemed to like it and we hooked up from there. We started playing here and there, and I remember doing a few concerts with him.

From there, the years move on, and with David, I was very aware of him from his playing with Cecil Taylor on Dark to Themselves [Inner City/Enja, 1977]. He was working as a cab driver and trying to think about his own music. He wasn't doing sideman gigs anymore because he just really wanted to get his own band together; he was in a period of meditation. He did an album for Silkheart called Passage to Music [Silkheart, 1989] with William Parker and Marc Edwards. Then he put out the word that he wanted to do a quartet, so he was asking people about a pianist.

David did a kind of character check on people, so he wanted someone who wasn't on drugs, and he wanted somebody who played piano but didn't sound like Cecil Taylor! William and Reggie Workman recommended me to David. David put out the word that he wanted to meet me, and so I went to a concert he did at the Knitting Factory and went up to him afterwards. We got together just to play, and after the session he looked at me and said "I think we've known each other for many lifetimes."

AAJ: When one listens to the David S Ware Quartet, there's a quality to the compositions and sound that absolutely speaks to your own influence. Can you talk about the working relationship within the band?

MS: First of all, I would like to say that I don't think David gets enough credit as a composer either. He wrote very powerful themes. They're often very minimalist, but they just pack a lot of energy in a short way. His phrases and lines are very impactful. They're definitely the product of a musician that has thought through his language for years and years. To me, he's both a maximalist and a minimalist at the same time, and that's a very hard balance to reach. His compositions speak of an equilibrium and a balance that is very hard to reach.

I think in me he found his partner, in that orchestrating his themes seemed very natural to me. It just seemed like a role that I was destined to have. It felt to me almost like I lived for it; I really understood how he put his music together. Sometimes he could come up with just a line, but as far as really giving it body, I became a co-orchestrator with the sound. William Parker was a part of that, too. We found a fourth-dimensional—if you want to call it that—way of looking at the jazz ensemble and layering the sound. There was a lot of work William and I had done prior to the Ware band that reached that fourth-dimensional thing. Then you add David on top of that, and also a drummer, and there were a number of drummers for the band. But as far as the pulse, that was me and William.

Something happened there that had never quite happened that way in any jazz band. I'm not equipped to describe it theoretically as to exactly what that is. Since I'm a part of it, I tend to want to leave it at the intuition level and not delve further to figure out what I was doing. But you can look at David as a product of a certain tenor tradition, mainly his idol Sonny Rollins. Obviously, there's the element of the Coltrane Quartet. But when you look at David, there's also aspects of guys like Rahsaan Roland Kirk. There are so many tributaries that pour into this thing.

Compositionally I think the model for David was actually [Thelonious] Monk, not in the way the compositions sound, but in the idea of having a really focused and tight minimalistic nature that the music is coming out of. So the group in general came to a way of generating a carpet of sound. I was pouring big cans of paint with dark hues to try to generate space and time that was maybe trying to imply all harmonic possibilities, giving David—the soloist floating on top of it—the ability to dart in and out of many harmonic ways. There were times that we did a pseudo-modal thing, not unlike the Coltrane Quartet, but we basically tried to stay away from that ourselves. I feel that the rhythm section came up with a very unique way of dealing with the language. And there was that connection between me and David in the sense that I had a real feel for what the lines that he wrote implied. It was a really exciting period. We thought we were changing the world, on a mission.

AAJ: To that end, if we think about your 2003 album The Trio Plays Ware, we hear Ware's compositions separated from his distinct saxophone sound. Can you talk about how you approached his music then?

MS: I think he deserved to be treated in that way. He deserved the respect to be treated as a composer in the jazz canon. That doesn't mean everything —whether or not people are playing your compositions—but I just thought it was really cool to present David in that way. He wrote some really nice tunes and lines, some really good source material. I don't remember how that album came about exactly. I do remember the piece "Godspelized," which I think is also one of his best albums. That piece is kind of a gospel piece, and we performed it on that album. I actually did it in time with a beat, and I heard later that he was actually really pissed off that I performed it in time. You know, the quartet recording on Godspelized [DIW, 1996] is done in rubato with a rolling feel. I did it as an actual gospel song in time, and I really love performing that song that way!

AAJ: In thinking on your piano work in the quartet, you generated a larger and more orchestral sound that at times reminds me of Duke Ellington. Do you find he was an influence in your approach?

MS: Being in a quartet, I was thinking in an orchestral sense because that was my role to be a foil for David. So the orchestral kicks in right away. I didn't go to anybody specifically to get ideas for that, because I was always voraciously listening to music at that time. As far as conceiving of the piano as an orchestral instrument and going into a model to figure out what that means, Duke Ellington was always there. When I was a kid the first pianist who really talked about Duke as a pianistic model was Cecil Taylor. I'm not familiar with any interviews where Monk really talked about him as a model, even though it's obvious that he was a part of Monk's development. But as far as somebody actually talking about it, Cecil Taylor was the first one I remember. That really made a big impression on me, and my composition teacher Dennis Sandole always said, "Whenever you're in need of inspiration, go out and buy another Duke Ellington album!" So as a kid, I had a lot of Duke Ellington albums.

MS: Piano players as a whole don't usually mention him as a go-to pianist, but his piano playing on Money Jungle [United Artists, 1963] might be the greatest piano playing ever. That touch, the scope of the sound, the intuitive aspect of every note serving its function to the utmost level. Nobody does it better than Duke Ellington. There's also a lot of extra-musical psychological aspects to what he does that even make it more fascinating. I don't really want to get into all of that right now, but as far as the orchestral sense of the piano, how to support the soloists and make them sound good, how to build drama, when to fall out at the right times and not play, there's no better person than Duke to learn from.

AAJ: Thinking on your notion of making the soloist sound good, let's look at the Live in Sant'Anna Arresi, 2004 duo record with David. You talked about at that moment as departing from a group with a leader, and instead being two individuals coming together in dialogue. You also noted that by the time of that concert, you and David each had distinct identities as leaders. How did you envision that merging during that performance?

MS: Improvised duos don't work unless it's two people on an equal plane psychologically, not a leader and a sideman. In an improvised duo, it just doesn't work that way. Now, in his quartet, he was the leader, there's no doubt about that. He trusted William and me, but there was never any doubt that it was his quartet from day one. He let that be known without actually saying it. So the psychological space of then being in an improvised duo where it has to be two people coming together on equal footing was challenging. He was physically big too, and he stands in front of a band with a huge sound, and his whole life was about leading the quartet. Because I do so many duos, especially with sax players, I'm sensitive to every gesture. I can feel when somebody thinks they're leading. There are subtle things. The same thing rings true when I did duos with Roscoe Mitchell too. This is all psychological space, and so much of music is about the psychological space that you enter into, and that determines how things unfold.

AAJ: It's interesting you say that about the dynamics with David and with Roscoe. When we contemplate other duo work you've done, notably with Mat Walerian and with Darius Jones, the dynamic flips, with you now serving as the elder artist. The psychological needs change completely, no?

MS: I'm going to isolate the duo with Darius. I heard him play one time, and to me he sounded like a real authentic part of the jazz tradition. I remember listening to him and thinking how authentic his phrasing was. His playing that day, I thought if there was some kind of extension of Cannonball Adderley's language into the avant-garde tradition, that's what I heard in his solo. I went backstage, and I introduced myself. I told him that and he was like, "Wow, that's really touching because I've been listening to your music since I was in high school!" He was telling me that when he was in college, my album New Orbit [Thirsty Ear, 2001] changed his head space.

So I got to know him, and he mentioned the idea of playing duo. I resisted for a long time, not out of not wanting to play, but I was just doing other things. And to be quite honest, the whole idea of getting a new musical friend takes energy. But anyway, we did end up playing. My approach to that was that he was younger and had a lot of ideas and energy. I was like, "This might be a godsend. Maybe I needed an infusion from somebody young, who might approach these things differently." So I was in a really receptive mode to him, and I remember articulating to him, "If we're going to do this, I know you used to listen to me when you're younger, but kick my ass! I'm here for what you have to offer." And he was right there with that. It was never a case of me thinking I'm anything because I'm an elder. It was a case of "I'm here, this is the musical situation, let's see if we make something of it purely on those terms." I don't care who anybody played with. If somebody told me they played with Miles Davis, it means nothing to me.

AAJ: The projects with Darius are also interesting because you came together and established song cycles on your records.

MS: Yeah, he initiated that. I think he was really cognizant of trying to keep this duo different than the other duos I was doing. So I noticed he would operate in short spurts over a certain gesture and that we'd create almost like these short operatic suites. Then it took on a life of its own, like we both like latched onto that as our identity as a duo. Obviously with that duo, the classical influence is there.

AAJ: You also mentioned Roscoe Mitchell, and we would be remiss not to talk about your work with him. Can you talk about that experience?

MS: Roscoe is one of a kind. Both David and Roscoe are extreme iconoclasts. In some ways, Roscoe is even more of an iconoclast, because he truly doesn't give a fuck what anybody thinks. He's been working the areas of a language that he's developing for decades now. He pounds more and more into the space. I think that even more than the Art Ensemble [Of Chicago], I was attracted to his solo work when I was a kid. It seemed to me to be the ultimate in working on solo improvisations on an instrument. I was always really attracted to how he generated with a very small germ of an idea. I always had hoped to play with him.

It's funny. Earlier, we talked about how I met William at a Billy Bang concert. The way I met Roscoe was that I had lunch with Billy Bang one day. I mentioned I really wanted to do a project with Roscoe Mitchell, and Billy said "Why don't you just call him up?" He gave me Roscoe's number, and I called him up and sent him the Cadence album I did with Rob Brown, and he got back to me right away.

So to what you alluded to earlier, for me working with two elder statesmen like David and Roscoe who are complete opposite ends of the spectrum helped me to see up close how they would organize their music. David is an East Coast player. I'm not going to get into what constitutes a "New York" sound or a "Philly" sound, but needless to say David had done the same thing I did, of going from Boston to New York. He went from New Jersey, went up to Boston to Berklee, and he moved to New York after he got kicked out of Berklee. So that whole trajectory, coming from the East Coast, going to Boston and then ending up in New York, David had done that. Roscoe is a product of Chicago, and had stayed in the Midwest, and there is a difference of sound. There's a difference in where the sound is coming from, and there's a difference in the approach. Roscoe is in a sense the second generation of the avant-garde, David is in the third, I guess you could say I'm in the fourth or fifth. There is a difference in every generation, even if some of the same principles come throughout. My own piano playing has nothing to do with either one of those gentlemen, but having what I do go through each of their systems did alter my perspective and approach.

AAJ: During your 16-year tenure in David's band, your own resume as a bandleader grows substantially. Your 1994 album Zo [Rise] with William Parker speaks to a few points I'd like to discuss. One is that in discussing that album, you noted an influence of Andrew Hill. The other intriguing aspect of that album is that its release history highlights the degree to which your work has been embraced by the punk rock world. Can we start with Andrew Hill's influence?

MS: When you're playing music in this idiom, people always want to bring up Cecil Taylor. Andrew Hill offered an alternative, and he's equally out of the same school that I call the Black Mystery School, but he's an iconoclast that positions himself as a post-Bop iconoclast. He has the same kind of stance that Monk and Cecil have, that he does his music as kind of "me against the world." On one level Andrew was a welcome way to get away from Cecil Taylor, as far as the immensity of that person hovering over you. Andrew was a really good response on that. In a lot of ways, Andrew may have been a less strident reactions against Bop, so he offered that if you didn't want to be labeled as a Free Jazz player in the way the generic term implies. If you wanted to bring aspects of post-Bop that you had in your playing, he was a person to be influenced by.

A lot of what I was saying back then about Andrew centered around that. I love Andrew Hill's playing, and I listened to him a lot, especially back then. I never wanted to play like him exactly, and I never actually sat down and tried to figure out exactly what he was doing. It was more like listening and soaking it in. There is an album, Strange Serenade, that he did with Alan Silva and Freddie Waits. It was supposed to be quartet with Bill Dixon, but Bill never showed up. They ended up doing an improvised trio album. I didn't hear that album growing up, but a couple of people had asked me "Did you spend hours with that album?" I said, "Why?" And they said "Because it's got your twin brother on it." So I went back into it, and he hit on a lot of what I later opened up into a whole new style. It's one of those things that just happened in the universe, but it probably points to the fact that whatever the tributaries were that led me to be who I am are the same sources he went to. One day of improvising for him yielded some things that I fleshed out later in a different way. But you know, it shows how malleable language is. In some ways, we're all related, even if we're not exactly working out of the same exact brain.

AAJ: To the second question, what is your reaction to how members of the punk rock community embraced your work?

MS: You mentioned the album Zo, so I think it should be said that it was released on a record label called Rise Records, which is a punk label in Texas. The logo for that label was Charles Manson's eyes. In terms of how it happened, we were just doing our thing and I wasn't thinking in terms of cross-fertilization. But all of a sudden, I started seeing my name pop up and people would tell me that a punk rock musician mentioned me. It just kind of happened.

Craig Koon who ran Rise Records, contacted me. I don't remember who gave him my number, but he contacted me and said, "I don't know how you feel about this, but would you do a record on a punk label?" Now, I couldn't get any Jazz label to sign me at that time! I was playing with David then, and he was on DIW. But you know, my first solo album was self produced, and it later got picked up—speaking of punk rock—by Henry Rollins and reissued on Infinite Zero. But I couldn't get any Jazz labels to pick me up, except for the one quartet record, Points, that I did for Silkheart. But anyway, I started getting to get these calls, and at first I'm like "What is this?" But I figured why not just go with it? That ended up being a thing: William Hooker at the time did an album with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth for Homestead Records. So when Zo came out on Rise Records, I actually went up to Homestead. I met Steven Joerg, who was running Homestead Records at the time, and I told him I played with David Ware. I gave him one of the DIW albums, and that was that. He wanted Ware on the label, after that he signed William Parker, and then he went on to be David's manager and also to run AUM Fidelity. But Jazz musicians having business relationships with punk labels, that just became a big thing at the time.

There was a whole fan culture of underground fanzines that would write about punk rock and alternative culture. There was a whole culture that grew up around that. From there, Henry Rollins became a fan. We hooked up and he produced a bunch of my records. I don't know why it happened; there was a historical precedent where Lou Reed worked with Don Cherry, and MC5 did concerts where they split the bill with Sun Ra. So there was historical precedent so that this was a possibility. Free Jazz and punk rock seemed to be part of this alternative culture. It was cool; all these kids discovered Jazz, and they would come out. They were really intelligent kids too, it wasn't just that we had a lot energy. They related to the actual motivic material. There are some Jazz writers today who discovered Jazz through that paradigm.

AAJ: In fact, the liner notes to the David S Ware Quartet album Surrendered refer to a concert where you opened for Sonic Youth at Roseland, and people slow danced to your music!

MS: It was a really cool thing and it was really genuine. It was not forced. I think one thing about that time period was that it was kind of more a post-punk period, alternative music was really coming out. This all happened around the time that Nirvana really broke. So when you have an idiom called "Alternative," it's open and allows for a lot of things to happen there. There wasn't a rigid definition of punk going on either.

For me it was really cool because it was part of my social world. I was hanging out with Page Hamilton, who was the guitarist for Helmet, and they were on tour with Nirvana when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" broke. My next-door neighbor at the time was Chan Marshall, Cat Power, and she was really close friend of mine. So that whole kind of social world behind the music was why I might've been able to relate to a lot of the kids that were digging the music. I was actually deep in that social world. Thurston, Henry, and I are all kind of the same age. We watched the same TV programs growing up, and we grew up with the same type of sensibility. There was an ease in relating to the kids that were listening to those bands, even if those kids were younger than me. There was something genuine and open about it.

AAJ: That sets up such a fascinating period in your career, with the recording and curatorial work you did for Thirsty Ear Records. If we look at your debut album for them—DNA—you've described it as a summation of your career up to that point. How did you get involved with Thirsty Ear?

MS: Thirsty Ear was one of quintessential alternative music labels. I met Peter Gordon through Henry Rollins, because when Henry started his label he used Thirsty Ear as distributor. So I got to know Peter and he said, "It'd be good to work with you on our actual label some day." But I felt a strong loyalty to Henry Rollins, so I wasn't ready to do that.

Then there came a time when it was obvious that Henry's label was going to become a catalog label, and not be doing any new things. At that point, I said to Peter, "Look, I don't think I'm going to be doing anything more with Henry. If you still want me to do something on Thirsty Ear, let's do it." That's how DNA came about, which was my first job as a leader on Thirsty Ear. Now that's 1999, so there's definitely an apocalyptic thing going. Y2K, whatever, it's the end of the century.

When I did this album, I put out a press release that I was retiring from recording. That's over 20 years ago, but I still had put out a massive number of albums back then. I actually never wanted to go the route of Anthony Braxton—even though I think the world of him—and put out albums all the time. I got a massive amount of press on account of the announcement. I had the express interest of not recording, but Peter Gordon approached me about starting a Jazz label on Thirsty Ear. He invited me to be the curator. So we decided to call it the Blue Series. I was not thinking of recording, but he said, "We're gonna need you to start out this series. You're the curator, the first album should be yours." So I recorded Pastoral Composure. Once I did that and "came out of retirement," it went on. It's funny. After I did that, I was hanging one night with Billy Bang and he said to me, "How did you do it?" I said, "Do what?" And he goes, "You put out a press release that you're never doing an album again, and then eight months later you come up with another album and you just get away with it!"

After DNA, which was an acoustic Jazz album for Thirsty Ear, the first two albums in the Blue Series were also acoustic—Pastoral Composure and New Orbit. Both were quartets, with the rhythm section being William Parker and Gerald Cleaver. Both had trumpet players: on Pastoral Composure it was Roy Campbell, and it was Wadada Leo Smith on New Orbit.

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