A simple gesture can convey profound symbolic meaning. Matthew Shipp, at the crest of a soaring run on the piano, reaches up into the wood beyond the keys for notes that aren't there. William Parker, deep in eyes-closed meditation, lifts his left leg and shifts his weight into the bass. Whit Dickey swivels his head round and roundalways clockwiseas the tension builds at the drum set. Three masters, three personalities, three voices: the melding of Shipp, Parker, and Dickey is no small matter. At times, it's a soul-searching magma of expression. At others, the players quite obviously butt heads on the stage. But unpredictability dictates the musical scene, and that's what keeps it interesting.
When Matthew Shipp sits down at the piano, you have to leave your preconceptions and expectations behind. He's a wiry, energetic man with a body coiled like a spring and a mind leaping like a meteor. The subtle touchesa delicate swirling trill here and a casually repeated motif therebelie an intense undercurrent of restless energy. When Shipp hrestrains his considerable force, the notes acquire an understated glow. He does this by heading into piano territory, or using the soft pedal. At times like this, he and Parker seem to have the greatest synergy. William Parker has an excellent ear and a frigteningly intuitive sense of forward motion. His head cocked to the piano at all times, he provides a second voice equal (if not in density, then in color) to Shipp's. Whit Dickey is sort of the odd man out in this situation. When the energy builds to overflowing, he's a perfect foil for Shipp's propensity to employ rhythmic irony. Using both ends of the sticks and whirling around the kit, Dickey weaves a mesh of accent and motion that few drummers can equal. But when the melody instruments quiet down, he seems somewhat at a loss: at times adding a sharp snare hit to squeeze the other players forward, or simply crashing gently on the cymbals in a sort of mute orchestral gesture.
When these three players got together the night of December 15 at Boston's Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), they met an eager crowd and covered a wide tonal range. The first piece had immense gothic weight, and Dickey coupled perfectly with his brushes. Very little of the music was pre-planned; the immediacy of the moment dominated the performance. As the night went on, Shipp took his trio through deep rumbling cascades of ecstasy, a quirky twist on standards, and a deeply meditative piece with long repeated chords and motifs. The last tune revolved around a freaky asymmetric time signature which it never left behind.
It's been said before, but bassist William Parker has a telepathic relationship with Matthew Shippand the same kind of energy that never lets momentum sag. When the group returned for their encore, Shipp immediately sailed into uncharted waters: jabbing, twisting, clustery waves that owed more to Cecil Taylor than Thelonious Monk. Parker took to the airwaves, and out gushed a flood of overtones and harmonics. While the audience seemed not to "get" this abstract piece, it provided a wonderful final release for the energy-rich trio. Dickey rose to some of his finest playing in the encore, a tribute to his dense, twisted logic.
Matthew Shipp is truly a force to be reckoned with: one of the most creative and intelligent musicians on the planet. Just keeping up with him is a task beyond most musicians' abilities; recognizing his ideas and spurring him onward is a task for the very few. When it works, it's glorious. When it fails, chances are you'll stick around for more.