Matthew Shipp: Poetic Connection

Seton Hawkins By

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AAJ: Obviously the subsequent albums you do for Thirsty Ear incorporate synths and more sound design, which you play on previously on the David S Ware album Corridors and Parallels. We also hear the influence and work of Chris Flam on these albums. Can you talk about them?

MS: I met Chris Flam through a guy that was my manager for a while. Flam was kind of an industrial guy, kind a goth guy who happened to be a recording engineer! At his house he did mixing, and he did mixing on my acoustic albums before I even had any sense that he actually worked with electronica artists! He became a personal friend.

I don't remember the chronology of Corridors and Parallels as related to my own albums. All I know is that David ended up buying a Korg synthesizer, and he asked me if I was interested in playing it. I said, "No, not really!" But he had me try it, and I was like, "Oh, this is cool." He then decided he wanted to do an album with it. There was no evolution to that or a lot of thought. He actually went out, bought this thing, and wanted to do something with it. It was cool, and it gave me a break from my usual role. It's always good to have a break and a reboot; that was a chance to do something different. As far as my own evolution into electronica, that's a different discussion.

AAJ: Yes, and what's striking about those albums of yours is the level of press attention and ink that they got! With Equilibrium in particular, the critical response is swift and very positive. It also seems that listeners and the press were very willing to take these musical steps with you.

MS: When I first started doing that with Nu Bop, I was horrified that the reception was going to be really negative. I played it for a few friends and actually even a couple of critics, and their advice was don't put it out! But the initial responses to Nu Bop were extremely positive. I was actually shocked. I mean, I felt good about the music and I felt that it was an honest statement of what I wanted to do and where I was. I was expecting that people are reasonable, but I was expecting like some serious blowback.

Don't get me wrong, there were some negative reviews from a few standpoints. There were a few people that thought I was selling out, or they just preferred me in the other standpoint. There were a few people that thought I didn't completely go where it could have gone. There were some people that saw me as an insurgent, and they were hoping I would take their world and turn it out, but that's not where I wanted to go. But all in all, it was really positive, and I was shocked. I do want to say that when I do something, I know my marketplace pretty well, and I know what I'm doing. I'm pushing buttons, but I try to know how it's gonna play out, more or less. I don't know the specifics, but I know the general direction. Nu Bop might be the only thing I'd ever done where I actually had no idea what would happen. By the time I got to Equilibrium, I kind of knew what the rules of the game were, as far as what people were allowing me to do, or to get away with.

AAJ: Press outlets like Pitchfork covered that stretch of albums pretty rigorously, which is an interesting coup, given their usual coverage rarely includes artists in the Jazz universe.

MS: Those albums got a lot of press in the fringe aspects of the electronica world. And to a jazz musician, even the crumbs from something in the pop music market is massive. We were talking about alternative music earlier, and that was a phenomenon of the early nineties. Now with these albums, we're talking about electronica. So you're talking about something that's apropos to the early 2000s. But I would say Equilibrium actually sold enough that it would have been on par with a really low-selling alternative rock album of the nineties. But for a jazz musician, that's a big deal.

AAJ: Let's look at the curatorial work you do for the Blue Series, because you oversee some incredible albums. For example, some of the Mat Maneri albums on Thirsty Ear are career highlights in his recording output, and David S Ware's album Threads is a fascinating addition to his discography. I'm curious about how you were approaching that curatorial role.

MS: There are a few things I feel really proud about at Thirsty Ear as a curator. The Mat Maneri albums, especially Blue Decco, are stunning. Mat was a friend of mine long before that, but I remember being there in the studio with him when he did it, and I feel very proud of it. There was also a William Parker album with Daniel Carter and Hamid Drake called Painter's Spring. I felt proud of that too. But the other thing is we brought Craig Taborn in for his first two albums as a leader. Given Craig's stature now, I'm proud to have been a part of that. I've long been a big fan of Craig's. I hope he feels they were an important part of his career.

The curatorial part of it was interesting. I didn't want the label to look like an erection of myself. I wanted a lot of different currents on there. And you know, we had a lot of artists that were not really related to what I do, or my school at all.

AAJ: You also oversee some really fascinating collaborations as well. If we think about your pairing with the Antipop Consortium, with Spring Heel Jack, with DJ Spooky, or the project Black Music Disaster, how did those develop?

MS: Let's talk about me being in New York in three parts. I moved here in the early eighties. I have no name, I'm not recording for any labels, I'm working a day job, I'm practicing my butt off, and I'm also at clubs at night dancing. I don't know how I did it and didn't die, cause I was burning the candle at every end.

Then comes the '90s. I got married in 1990, so even though I was drinking a lot back then and hanging out at bars, I wasn't going to clubs or anything. The '90s are when I started doing these albums on punk rock labels, and the social paradigm I was involved with was the alternative rock scene. So we're going from the eighties world, the post-Basquiat world, to the '90s world. When you get to the 2000s, whatever was alternative rock is all completely splintered, even though there are remnants existing. We're into this weird world of electronica taking over everything. I was still out and about back then. Right now, I'm a completely sedentary person who stays at home, and I never hang out or go out, unless it's just to meet a friend or something. But I was still hanging out then. It was some performance I caught where DJ Spooky was performing, and I spoke with him after. He had a bunch of my records and he was like, "Let's do something sometime."

Beans from Antipop Consortium used to work at Other Music. He used to come up to me and say, "Let's do something sometime." I was polite, but I was thinking "Who is this guy?" And then I saw something on Antipop Consortium, and I was like, "This guy's in Antipop Consortium?" Anyways, the impetus to go into electronica had been there for a long time. The idea of a jazz musician doing stuff with beats had been in the air forever. And any jazz musician my age grew up with the Herbie Hancock albums. The idea of it is not novel, but what was novel is the application of it at your time. So I was meeting these people socially, and it just seemed really natural and right for the time. And it just happened and then it just took on a life of its own. Then it just so happened that Flam was actually producing DJ Spooky's albums. That was complete happenstance. And those albums kind of partake of a social reality that was happening in the early 2000s.

You also mentioned Black Music Disaster. That was a live album I did with Spring Heel Jack and J Spaceman. It was a live concert in London. Spring Heel Jack had been on Thirsty Ear before we even started all this, and they were big jazz fans. When they found out I was working with Peter, they requested that we do a project together.

I want to backtrack a little bit. At that time my wife was listening to a lot of Trip hop and she was really into DJ Spooky, Bjork, and Portishead, which has a very distinct offshoot of English Trip hop. She was listening to a lot of that and I liked it. When I started working with Spring Heel Jack, John Coxon had actually been a producer with Everything But the Girl. That perked my wife's ear, cause she was really a big fan. John and I became good friends, and he was friends with like all the people in that world. That became a part of my world all of a sudden. I was really very Trip hop oriented and swimming in all that.

When I was doing stuff with Spooky or with the guys from Antipop, that felt very organic in the sense that they were big jazz fans, but also we're both African-American males around a certain generation, both living in an urban setting of New York and therefore there is a connection for that reason alone. And on top of it, electronica is about information, a vortex of information. And I can't think of anything that describes jazz like "a vortex of information."

AAJ: That ties in nicely with your trio album Piano Vortex! [Thirsty Ear, 2007] Can we turn to the acoustic trio of yours that we've seen rise particularly over the past decade. Several years ago, you mentioned you had a stronger interest in, as you put it, "the jazz phraseology," than you had in prior decades. And there does seem to be a shift in your projects beginning around 2006. Can you talk about your feelings there?

MS: I think early on my career I was really trying to get away from jazz, and I was hostile to it, even though it's completely and utterly in my DNA. I remember when I was at New England Conservatory in my English class, I remember writing a term paper and the title of the paper was "All Forms of Jazz Must Be Destroyed." That was the actual topic! I remember the teacher's notes, and the first note after the title was "Why?"

When I first moved here, I was in an infantry mindset, and I wanted to be known as a contemporary artist busting boundaries. I was definitely interested in the destruction of jazz. I say that as a jazz musician, and whatever I did in that regard, the fact that I really am a jazz musician still comes through! That was where my head was. But at a certain point I had to say, "jazz is pretty cool." What emerged over a period of time with me is that I actually consider myself a poet. I think the aspects of the poetics of the language— despite my strident talk—if my instincts are to be a poet, they still always come through. I started to realize that might be my strength.

I started going into that more. At that point, there are people that are into avant-garde music that might actually think I'm conservative, because I'm trying to make a phrase. I remember a really defining moment for me early in my life, is that I had a theory book. It had these examples in the book of diagramming sentences in English, almost as a way to get your mind geared towards paying attention to how a phrase in music carries information. I was really young, but it really hit me how music is language both in a literal and in an abstract figurative way. So, you know, even in my strident times, that was on the back of my mind. I think at a certain point, it was just like, "Wait a minute, I can be as out as I want to be, but I'm never going to get more profound than Bud Powell or Monk." So I might as well relax into the idea that you're a musician foremost, and you're trying to communicate whatever can be communicated in the realm of a phrase. There can be something really beautiful about just playing a bunch of tunes. There's no reason to try to get away from the very essential aspects of making music in that way.

AAJ: There's hints of that even earlier on. For example, the way you approach "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" on DNA, you achieve that type of expression you've just outlined. Earlier, we talked about the David S Ware Quartet achieving a certain iconic quality. The same can be said of your trio. How did it form?

MS: I met Michael Bisio when I recorded for Silkheart. He actually recorded an album for Silkheart, too, and somehow I heard it and I liked it a lot. I didn't really know who he was, but I made a mental note of it. It made an impression on me. Years later I was doing a duo concert with William Parker in Seattle and Bisio showed up and came backstage. We just made a mental note that some day we'd do some project together. Years after that, he moved to New York and got in touch with me. At that time, William was really starting to blow up as leader, and he was just really busy. He was always on the road. Half the time, I'd do a trio concert, and he couldn't do it. I had to make a decision. I needed my own trio, so I brought Mike into the group and that was that!

AAJ: You've described your trio almost as a living organism, and you've stated that you don't want to exert too much control over the other members. Can you talk about the dynamics of the trio with you, Michael Bisio, and Newman Taylor Baker?

MS: It's interesting. Newman is in his seventies, Mike is in his sixties, and I'll be 60 soon. When I was a kid, Newman actually lived in my hometown of Wilmington. I actually used to follow him around, though I never really introduced myself. He played with a lot of the bands that came out of Philly and played in Wilmington. I remember him very distinctly. Anyways, when things work, a lot of times there's not really a logical explanation for why. They just work. A lot of times, personalities really work. And if it seems to work, I'm going to go along with it.

AAJ: In 2015, we see some of the unique aspects of the trio so beautifully by looking at the album The Conduct of Jazz [Thirsty Ear, 2015] as well as the album To Duke [RogueArt, 2015]. Can you talk about the approaches to those albums—one of original material, and one an exploration of Ellington's compositions?

MS: It's a completely different construct if you're dealing with standards for dealing with your own material. The challenge is to recreate the standard in your image, to make it seem like it could be one of your pieces, or make it seems like it fits naturally into your language. Sometimes with certain standards I've had to play them for years before it hits me how to bring it into my world. And some never fit into my language. They just don't, and if I play them I sound like Bill Evans or maybe McCoy [Tyner]. If a song for whatever reason does lend itself to my style, then there's just a process of working it into my system, where it marries itself to my language. When that naturally happens, it's really cool.

It's funny, because a lot of people seem to like the way the Ware Quartet plays "The Way We Were." I have a pretty extensive role in that; in fact, I anchor it down! I've never really figured out myself if I've actually really married that song to myself. And actually we were panned in JazzTimes—I'm not going to say the writer—but he excoriated me, saying that I didn't bring anything and I sounded like I was playing sheet music. And there is a part where I'm really holding the anchor down. But people really liked that, and that song actually had a life of its own. In retrospect, I don't know if I married that song to myself, or if I was just functional, even despite the fact that it worked.

AAJ: Thinking back to an earlier comment you made about identifying as a poet, can we talk about the special working relationship you had forged with the late Steve Dalachinsky? His liner notes for your work show a very unique bond between you two, and almost a shared shorthand.

MS: The liner notes Steve did for me are a body of work unto themselves. They're very interesting and insightful, a journey through different aspects of the poetics of the music. It would be great at some point to put out a book of just the liner notes. Steve was a close friend for years and years. Over the years he and I talked hours and hours. I don't remember the logical sequence of how certain things came to be or how—if we're working in a shorthand—that happened other than things just happen over time. But Steve's liner notes are very much a part of my whole world.

AAJ: Let's chat about your new solo piano album The Piano Equation. What's interesting with the album coming out this year is that it also marks the 25th anniversary of your recording one of your early solo piano records Before the World [FMP, 1997]. Comparing the two highlights the incredible evolution within your playing. You've referenced this earlier, but can you talk more about the changes in your playing?

MS: I'm at heart a poet. It has nothing to do with jazz per se, nothing to do with avant-garde, but it has to do with a sensibility of your worldview as applied to whatever praxis, whatever art you deal with, whether you're sitting at a piano or writing words. So I'm a poet that looks for the poetic connection between disparate phenomena. That's who I am in my soul. If the lyricism is coming more to the front, if that seems to be the emphasis, it's because at heart I am a poet, period. It's that type of mystical, lyrical push.

I actually feel I'm actually entering the last phase as a recording artist, like I'm kind of wrapping it up as far as my grand statement. Anything that comes after this comes after this—if anything does come after this, because I'm freaked out by the jazz business—will just be an elder statement.

But I still feel the inspiration, and The Piano Equation is about trying to find that ultimate equation. If I had my way, I would press one note down if I could get all the information across within the one note. That's all it would be. Obviously, to say what I want to say does require more than one note, but I'm looking for that ultimate equation.

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