Matthew Shipp: Tripling the Play

Lyn Horton By

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Matthew ShippWhen Matthew Shipp was a teenager, he had a job as a cocktail pianist. His motivation was to sound "like any old jazz pianist." He did "what any other jazz pianist would do, that is, study everything you can get your hands on to get a backlog of material which means learning standards." A "religious" inner drive kicked him out of the box: "to be the essence of [his] being" on whatever instrument he played. So the assimilation of all those jazz standards shaped itself into another language form that he draws on now. Shipp has grown into a mature musician...like no other jazz pianist.

Going it alone to discover what lies beneath the skin is an adventure that results in an education, coming from no other place than where that adventure goes. Ever since the release of his album, One (Thirsty Ear, 2006), determined to stretch himself, Shipp embraced a solo touring year. He reflects on the time as one where his consciousness was raised through certain "epiphanies" which have induced him to "keep [his] musical instincts sharp." He feels that he "does not have to force things"; he is "more confident in himself...more relaxed...more free..." He can "do whatever he wants to."

Shipp still staunchly believes that every strike of the keys unlocks new doors to the universes that only his music can unleash. The "purity and austerity" emanating from his solo ventures taught him to meet the challenges and to explore the "aura and fragrance" of any other music-making situation. His connectedness to his playing is steadfast; how deeply he delves into that connectedness becomes his objective at every turn and the deeper he digs, the more he is convinced that how the music happens "is all a mystery."

Shipp can see more clearly that "overall, his approach is slowly changing," particularly in relation to his musical vocabulary, his attack on the keys and the dynamics he generates. The ways in which he conceptualizes the music will always depend on the context in which he plays, on his own or with a group. The context and environment are entities which Shipp inextricably links to the fluctuation of his musical language, which he understands as "invisible" and relating to "energy and non-logical language...in other words, spirit."

The spirit that infuses Shipp's music infiltrates his life, reinvigorates him and gives him breath. His ideas for projects are continual and the ones for trios recently seem to rise to the top. He has played with two trios since 2006; one with drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist William Parker and the other featuring bassist Joe Morris and drummer Whit Dickey.

In the trio format, Shipp discerns that he can now "play through the music as opposed to on top of it." He can feel the "flow of language of the others in a little clearer way," so that "the boundaries can melt between the instruments." Now that Shipp has come through his solitary undertaking, he can present himself to his band mates "naked," within the realm of interactive possibilities. He loves this. For what is creation but to reincarnate and reinvent the universe?

Who could have predicted, therefore, that a spur-of-the-moment studio session which Shipp concocted in February of 2007 with bassist Morris and drummer Dickey, would have produced another recording?

Shipp's Piano Vortex (Thirsty Ear, 2007) is the result of that session. It is an album that arose from no preconceptions or pre-mediations. In the cab ride to the studio on a day in February, Shipp carried no briefcase, just "a backload [of music] in his mind." The only precedent was that the three musicians had played together for over twenty years and knew "each other beyond inside-out." When there is no pressure to produce anything, Shipp says, "different strategies come out" through participating in an organic tripartite musicality and the joy of "simply fooling around." Without having a "narrative in mind, the material wasn't shaped" and, as the leader of the band, Shipp could keep the intention that whatever transpired would bear no resemblance to "Sacred Geometry," his composed ensemble piece, presented at New York's The Kitchen in November of 2006.

With a refreshed sense of his innate capacities lighting the way, Shipp found that co-mingling with the musical abilities of Morris and Dickey carved out a means to "strive for utter simplicity." Endemic to the simplicity he desires is the intensity of symbiosis among the musicians which means everything to Shipp: he is "looking for a completely integrated trio sound." He says, "sometimes when I listen back to Piano Vortex , I'm not sure if a certain gesture comes from the bass drum or the bass or the bass register of the piano."


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