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Matthew Shipp: Shipp Shifts

Chris Rich By

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Pianist Matthew Shipp's artistic collaboration community is a counterpart to his business community. It is its own ecosystem of multidisciplinary work, scholarly conversations and mentorship.

The Trio

The trio is Shipp's main vehicle. It is, by turns, his midnight train, his slow boat to China and a way of flying home. It takes a hike, rides a bike and covers lots of ground. It sails and it soars. And who can better describe it than the ensemble proprietor himself?

"One thing I learned from my 16 years in the David S. Ware Quartet is the importance of a unit really being a unit," says Shipp. "I knew that before David, but he reinforced that idea. In these days, often because of economic need, so many musicians function as journey people. And there is nothing wrong with that—and often great music is produced—but there is something about a band that has made a commitment to develop a music together, where the band becomes a lifestyle.

"In my music, I really depend on a deep relationship with my bassist. That relationship both grounds me and frees me up. People who have followed my music in the past know the names associated with me in this realm. Enter Michael Bisio, the bassist in my current trio. For lack of a better word he is a monster. Monster sound, chops, knowledge, faith in where the music can go, instinct to follow my phrasing etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I depend on a bassist—I wrap my lines around their lines—and if I was a pitcher in baseball I would probably be someone unorthodox like Satchel Paige.

"I like to throw the rhythm section sliders, changeups, spit balls along with my fastball. Bisio always knows exactly what part of the plate the ball is going over no matter what pitch I throw. I really depend on my bassist—maybe Shipp is a vampire who sucks the blood from the bassist.

"Even though my relationship with my bassist is clear cut, my relationship with the drummer is always more problematic, paradoxically that was the same situation with David S. Ware who went through four drummers over the period I was in the quartet. Whit Dickey is my drummer of choice in the trio. Whit is an idiosyncratic artist who brings a very unique and special set of variables to the equation. First it's his sound—he gets a very beautiful sound out of the drums—we have borrowed other drummers drums at gigs and after the gig the drummer we borrowed it from have marveled at how Whit tunes their drums.

"Whit is idiomatic for the jazz avant-garde—whatever that is—but he does not play any jazz avant-garde clichés, and does not sound like any of the forefathers of drumming in this area. I also need a balance of someone who can mark off pulse when needed and someone who can be a colorist and not get in the way of my phrasing—I don't know if there is a "perfect balance" of this—and if it is one I don't know if we get it all the time. All I know is when the gig is going well it feels really good with this particular configuration. Whit is very interesting in the fact that he is a very analytical person but there is also an aspect of him that is an idiot-savant. Very interesting cat.

"Anyway this is my trio," Shipp concludes. "I think we are doing something very unique in this period of the music—the trio music for us is a lifestyle, and actually our life is a certain way. For us the trio is a vehicle for transcendence and hopefully our language is a vehicle for transcendence for our audience."

Michael Bisio rises very well to the occasion of being a sonic navigator and more or less puts the full measure of effort as a performing musician into his trio participation. This applies equally well to Whit Dickey.

Bisio found his way here from the Puget basin, where he formed a lasting friendship with bassist Dan O'Brien and was an avid participant in the area's unusually vivacious jazz milieu. The two work with piano as if bass and drum kit were complementary outriggers of pianistic essence.

Says Bisio, "John Sharpe's AAJ review of our 2011 Vortex [London] performance opens with this quote from a patron: 'I'm not that keen on piano trios but you can't fault this one.' His penultimate sentence states 'Nonetheless, the rapturous applause from the standing room only crowd made one thing clear: piano trios don't come any better than this.'

"Let me start by saying I believe the Matthew Shipp Trio is the finest piano trio in creative music today. Our individual histories include intense studies and great love for the traditions that are the hallmarks of the musics we have made our own, not merely in an academic sense but in the spirit of the music and the artists who have come before us. As individuals we continue to hone our craft and practice our art on a daily basis. These strengths give us the vision and ability to move our music forward.


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