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My Conversation with Matthew Shipp

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From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in June 1999.

Society as a rule, in the nineties, has become so accustomed to being spoon-fed their opinions and their ideas that if Rosie or Oprah doesn't recommend it or some guy fails to give it a thumbs up, it is immediately dismissed. It seems individuality and creative thinking has gone out of fashion. So it is not surprising to me that you have artists like Matthew Shipp, who quite possibly may be the finest unheralded pianist today, not getting his share of the "love." After all, Shipp has avoided the pitfalls of fame like it was the plague and the word sell-out doesn't seem to be in his vocabulary. Finally, someone with an original thought that isn't concerned with being politically correct. Finally, someone who just cares about the music and gives the bird to all the other bogus hoopla and shameless shenanigans. Heck, if John Coltrane were alive today, Tommy LiPuma would probably have him doing an album of Burt Bacharach tunes. So here it is, Shipp, unedited and in his own words.

All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.

Matthew Shipp: I've been playing piano since I was five years old, classical at first. Then I got really interested in jazz at twelve through Ahmad Jamal, who I heard play on TV. I started investigating jazz, jazz piano, the whole continuum. I loved the whole music from Fats Waller on up to Cecil Taylor. I made a conscious decision as I was getting the language and knowledge of jazz piano and the jazz idiom, I made a conscious decision to quote be a modernist, for whatever that means, but do something relevant to what should be done now. I had a natural inclination or a proclivity towards the language of John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and that type of thing, even though I do and always have loved the whole continuum of the music. Therefore, once I made that decision the process started where I was in search for an original style, which kind of fell together, probably, around the age of twenty-three and I moved to New York around the age of twenty-four.

AAJ: How was the reception like for you in New York?

MS: I really loved New York and I kind of felt at home, from the first day I moved here, like this is where I always envisioned living or like the place where I always wanted to live. I was able to make friends very easy here and meet people, so from that standpoint, it felt very natural, but the actual climate as far as musically, with what I do and where I want to go with it, I was kind of naïve when I moved here and it was a very hostile environment, actually, for a young Black male, who does their own music. I'm talking about just the jazz world now, for a young Black male that writes their own music, or does their own, Black male or female, that does their own music and operates in kind of a classic mode like Monk did, where you do your music and that's that. It was, actually, '84 was a very hostile time for anybody with that attitude and I was kind of naïve to it, so I moved here blah-blah-blah, trying to get my own projects off the ground and kind of naïve to the difficulty of it all, which is probably good. Despite all the difficulty, you just wake up the next day and keep trying again. The atmosphere is just very hostile, mainly because of, well, because of a lot of reasons. There are a lot of reasons, but mainly I just think that people lost sight of the fact that somebody can develop their own style on an instrument and write their own music. That whole way of thinking in jazz, at that time, was really getting lost in the early '80s.

AAJ: Do you find that brand of elitism still prevails in the music today?

MS: Yes, I think at one time jazz might have been more of a street language, I mean, there has always been record labels, not so much major labels because Blue Note, all those labels were independent at one time, but I do think at one time, jazz was more of a street language, where there were just groups of people that kind of did a certain thing that they had assembled together and they developed a language together. Nowadays, peoples' perceptions of it, if they are not buying the old re-issues, if they are dealing with young people, it's just a very corporate thing. I think the sense of a street language or anything like that has been lost, so consequently, the idea that somebody can just write their own music and develop their own musical character of sorts has really been lost in jazz. The record labels don't foster that idea or try to find people that do that and foster their careers. So if you do anything like that or have any individuality, you're really on your own in a real way. In a real way, you are on your own.

AAJ: Does the music you play stigmatize you from getting that corporate recognition?

MS: It's definitely a stigma. And what's so interesting about the fact that it's a stigma, it means you just really look at it as a part of nature. It, kind of, has to exist. It's just no way around it. And anytime you have a mainstream, that type of underground, it's almost like looking at it like light and darkness or whatever. If there is a mainstream, there has to be an underground. There's just no way around it. It's just interesting that there is such a stigma attached to it, yet it's something that, by the very definition of a jazz mainstream, it has to exist. There's some type of dialectic going on between what's perceived as the mainstream and the underground and they both kind of keep each other honest. If it's working, they both kind of keep each other honest in a way. If one exists the other has to. There's just no way around it.

From a standpoint of society, it's definitely stigmatized because people, the mainstream of jazz has been co-opted, kind of, in a corporate thing and people have a viewpoint that they can deal with it, even if it's just that they've heard certain type of jazz in the movies and on TV. So you hear something that sounds really strings and it can be completely unoriginal or whatever, but there's some type of mental framework for them to deal with it, but if they hear something that purposely syncopates a different way, or off the beat this way, or this sound has some grit to it, or whatever. Then there's the whole idea that if the people are really are trying to develop a personal or unique language that maybe rooted in New York City life in the '90s or whatever, that they don't have the nostalgic categories to deal with that like they would some mainstream jazz. I think it's definitely off putting to some people, whereas to other people it's liberating and opens their minds somewhat.

AAJ: Has jazz gone corporate?

MS: Oh, yes. I feel that, basically, major label jazz is a complete sham. That's my personal feeling. That's not to mean that, there's some good music on there and there's people doing some stuff, older people that are just doing their music and that's that. I'm not going to come down on anybody in particular or anything, but I feel, basically, that jazz has a very precarious position in this society anyway, not historically. It has historical greatness in what it is. Everybody, even people who don't like it are aware that it's one of the few, pure American music. Historically, it's pretty much in stone, but it has a precarious place in modern day society, in the way that music is a part of lifestyles, say you have clothes lines that are geared around hip hop lifestyles and grunge lifestyles. With jazz there's no, that's why there's no merchandising, because it's not part of anything really. It supposedly pure music, but it's not even really that once you reach the corporate level. It's really interesting because some jazz musicians are really critical of pop music, in certain ways, but to me a lot of the things that they might consider shallow in pop music, what they actually do is way, way more shallow. If you consider the types of buttons you have to push to be on a major label jazz label and to have popularity in that way, the types of buttons you have to push. To me a lot of it's very shallow and to me there's a lot more shallowness involved in a lot of the corporate major label jazz than a lot of the pop music that some of those people might come down on.

AAJ: Let's talk about some of the musicians you have worked with, three in particular, William Parker, David S. Ware, and Roscoe Mitchell.

MS: First of all, William Parker, he's kind of like my blood brother of sorts, not blood, but he's like a musical soul mate of sort. I just think that there are occasions in a musician's career where they meet up with somebody that they speak the same language completely. That's something that can't be qualified as something that happens or doesn't happen. We operate in different rhythm sections together. We're both in the Note Factory with Roscoe Mitchell and of course the David S. Ware Quartet and he plays in a lot of my different groups. It's not, even when he plays in my groups, it's not a leader, sideman situation, where he's a sideman. We're partners.

I don't even know what to say about that relationship except that it exists on a very deep language and the communication is on a very deep language. It's almost like we're twin brothers. You hear stories of twins where telepathy involved. One will be in another room and one here and there's just telepathy. I feel that way when I play with him, that there's a level of telepathy that's uncanny. I don't know how to qualify it. I know that our backgrounds are similar in some ways that we both grew up with the very idealized version of the '60s Black avant-garde. We both got hit very hard at a certain age with John Coltrane and Ornette, Albert Ayler. The music meant a very specific thing to us. We both had a very similar process on how that unfolded in our teenage lives, the discovery of that music and what it meant in our life, just structuring it in a way that we knew that we wanted to deal with being musicians in the world, based on our love for that music and what those people were trying to do and how we wanted to carry it forward. We had a very similar process of discovering that and how it unfolded. And also, we had a very similar teenage experience of spirituality, where that we both were Christians.

I'm not a doctrinaire Christian or a literal Christian, in fact, I don't even practice Christianity anymore. I'm really in love with the symbolism of Christianity. I'm completely in love with the symbolism. My own personal ways of dealing with religion or spirituality is more like a Taoist, where I worship some energy field, not worship, but reverence between some creative energy field that created us, but anyway, my background is Christianity and I'm in love with the symbolism of Christianity. It's the same with William, whereas he has more of an Eastern way of looking at things now, but he grew up a very devote Christian and read the Bible as kid, which I did and was really in love with all the pastoral symbolism in the Bible and all the poetic symbolism that makes the Bible beautiful in the parts that it's beautiful. He went through a similar phase. I went through a phase when I was a teenager where I got really involved with the Jehovah Witnesses, and same with William. There's a lot of parallels in how we grew up, even though we grew up in different setting. He grew up in the Bronx, very poor and I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, middle class, but still there were a lot of similarities too in the way we grew up.

And because of all that, I think we just have a very similar worldview and how we view this music's position in the world and importance and the revolutionary possibilities of the music, spiritually, and he, more politically than I am because I'm, my politics are actually in some ways, not conservative, but I accept things more than he does. He's actually kind of a real revolutionary mindset, where I'm, my whole way of doing things are things are the way they are and I'm going to make a difference with music and hope it makes people think about things, but I don't really expect much out of people, meaning that I have an understanding, whereas William really comes out of a '60s mindset, I'm more of a yuppie. I've just accepted certain things and I hope to make a difference in music. We both have a love of this language, the avant-garde and I think in the '60s avant-garde, people actually thought that they could actually change things politically and I don't think it's possible through music now. I've just accepted that.

I think it's possible to wake up people and open their minds to creative possibilities through music and to make a difference that way and hopefully people will think clearer. I've accepted some things that William hasn't. But anyway, all of that was to say that there is a very similar worldview that we share and I think that our communication comes out of that.

With David S. Ware, I'm a sideman in his group, even though the group has a lot of integrity as a group. He doesn't write as a dictator and in fact, my collaboration with him can be seen as a collaboration. He's hired me for my style. I have a natural proclivity or talent to orchestrate his ideas. And again, we come out of a very similar mind frame, musically also. While I was growing up, my whole worldview centered around the John Coltrane Quartet, that whole way of dealing with jazz as cosmic music. It's the same with David. It was just the way of how he structured the world, the John Coltrane Quartet that is and it's the same with William. David is also the other stream of Sonny Rollins involved because Sonny was one of his teachers. Sonny Rollins happens to be one of my favorite musicians also. I was a natural for David's ideas and David's groups and David put out the word around 1989, when he was making his comeback that he wanted to add a piano to the group. He wanted somebody that didn't sound like Cecil Taylor and so he was asking around and William Parker and Reggie Workman, both recommended me. He called me and we got together and I remember, the first time we just played, he looked at me and he goes, "I think we've been acquainted our whole lives." It's been a real great collaboration for me because David loves my individuality in his group, but it is his group. It's his group. It's his compositions. I'm giving unlimited latitude to orchestrate his ideas. Sometimes he wants very specific things and he asks me for them, but usually, on the whole, I'm allowed to be myself in his group.

Now the situation with Roscoe Mitchell's a little different. He's maybe more of an elder statesman in the music. I've always liked Roscoe's, actually, I contacted him first because I liked some of his early albums, "Sound." I was really a fan of the early Art Ensemble and I always liked Roscoe's alto playing. I always thought of him as being different than David or William because they're kind of East Coast and the New York school of music is different than the Mid-West, but he's somebody whose work I've always liked. I contacted him and sent him some of my early albums and he called me up and said, "Yes, let's do something." It's a different situation with Roscoe because the other guys, geographically they're here, they're right on the East Coast, I'm with them all the time. With Roscoe, I don't have a musical proximity to him so it's a different thing. He's more of an elder statesman, so the whole dynamic is different. It's been a great experience and it's given me a chance to see things from a different angle because the whole AACM that Roscoe comes out of in the Mid-West. That whole school of music, they have a little different approach to the music than we do here on the East Coast. I kind of have had to adjust a lot of my ideas to his compositional vision when I play in the context of his group and that's been a learning experience for me. It's definitely been a very positive one for me.

AAJ: Why is it about the dynamics of the David S. Ware Quartet?

MS: Well, first of all, Fred, I don't know if you are aware of this, but she (Susie Ibarra) just left the group. We have a new drummer, Guillermo Brown now. What makes that group work is first, David's trust in the rhythm section and his trust in our abilities to deal with his written material, meaning that he brings something and we orchestrate what we're going to do about it. What happens is the group kind of has a very integrated, fourth dimensional quality to it, whereas I lay out a carpet, a harmonic carpet on the piano and the carpet has a pulse, a very rapid pulse, moving through space at a very rapid tempo. I'm feeding the information from the pulse and the harmonic information. As that goes through space, William and I have this nature telepathy that ties in together with all of that. And then on top of it, the drummer has to be able to get some kind of counterpoint to that. The drummer has to be sensitive enough not to think that they had to provide all the forward motion because everybody in the group has a lot of forward motion in their playing. So we need a drummer that can add a counterpoint to it. David feeds off of drummers. So a drummer that can generate a pulse, yet knows that William and I are strong players that can generate this pulse too. And somehow in space, musical space, this all has to kind of coalesce into a glue.

The pulse has to come from some undefined center where we all hook up together and that comes from who we are and from playing together a lot. And with all going through space, David hooks into that also. What you have is some undefined center that emerges and the pulse is just moving through space from that center and each instrument is an extremity coming from that. It can be elastic and stretch. Each instrument can stretch in its own world, but somehow that glue has to be there in the center and we all have to be able to snap back to that pulse. So we have to be able to snap back to that undefined center, which is, which we know what it is but it's very hard to say in words. That center is what holds it together and it's really hard to explain in words what that is except for a real knowledge of where the pulse is on everybody's part.

AAJ: You spoke of John Coltrane being the common thread that links David, William, and yourself, what is about Trane?

MS: Coltrane to me, it's like he's definitely a jazz player, but his music, whatever this means, which to me, the spirituality of the music, what I hear him doing is trying to really delve into some universal pool of language. It was almost like he's trying to get back to what language was like before the Tower of Babel, when everybody spoke in one tongue. I hear such a, especially with his explorations with African music and Indian music that he synthesizes it into his music. He doesn't use it in a superficial manner. I hear him really trying to delve into the spirituality of what is language and where is the resonance that allows language to be, and that's the spirituality that I hear in his music, a real universal understanding of, or a universal quest after really trying to find what is language. That's what I get out of Coltrane's music. The music is such an impact on me, I think for that reason.

AAJ: What was your first Coltrane album?

MS: My first Coltrane album ever was a two record set on Atlantic called The Art of John Coltrane, which is cuts from different albums. But then the first album that I bought that was a unified album conceptually was A Love Supreme. That completely changed my whole world.

AAJ: Outside of Trane, what other figures inspired you along your journey?

MS: Well, I love the whole jazz piano tradition, probably in some ways Bud Powell and Monk. They really represent the essence of what a jazz pianist is to me, those two. And then in other ways, Duke Ellington, just being the organizer that he was and I love his piano playing.

AAJ: What is the essence of a jazz pianist?

MS: Whatever Monk and Bud do (laughing). I don't know. It's really hard to qualify what I mean words because when I get an image of them playing, I've always like, "Ah-ha, that's jazz." I don't know how else to say it. When I hear, maybe in some ways Monk is the ultimate. First of all, he has a personal touch, a personal way of attack. I get a real Trans-African thing out of his playing, where that he's a Black American. He attacks the piano in a way, it's almost like an African instrument. There's a real attitude that he has. That's what I like. It's like in professional wrestling, Stone Cold Steve Austin. I don't know if you watch professional wrestling, but just his attitude. The attitude about Monk, it's kind of a, just fuck you. Bam, this is my world. This is my riff. Fuck you. I don't know any other ways to say it, but there's a real attitude. Monk reminds me of Stone Cold Steve Austin. There's the guy in his world. He's sitting at the piano. He has his world. He has his riffs. He has his way of attacking chords and that's that. That's that.

AAJ: What intrigues you about Christianity?

MS: Well, I think what intrigues me about American Christianity is that it's actually, in a certain way, a really creative type of thing. It's taken on so many manifestations and it's interesting how one supposedly historical person, meaning Jesus or one book, the Bible can just be so many things to so many people. It's the same, basically, just the same words. If you look at American Christianity and what is engendered, I don't know, Coltrane made use of it because there are images of, just calling an album Sun Ship, for instance, and the whole idea of Christ as the sun god, or whatever. Even though a lot of the uses of it have been negative at times, it's just interesting to me how one thing can have so many different interpretations or applications. What I was talking about earlier, I was talking about pure poetry. There's certain things that I really get out of it, but like I said, I'm not a Christian per se anymore. The thing that I am really fascinated about Christianity is the whole Pentecostal aspect of it. I think a lot of this music ties into that directly, the whole idea of speaking in tongues. If the mind has somehow found a way for some degree of freedom or to let the mind go, that one can tap into other languages and start speaking them freely. Hopefully in doing that there's an ecstatic experience where one is, really and directly translating energy into something creative. Just speaking as a hymn. Just speaking in reverence to creative energy and what we can do with it in a positive way if we focus on it. I think the Pentecostal aspect of speaking in tongues is transposed into this music and used. That's where you get to the letting go of free jazz. I think that's probably all in all the biggest application or modulation of some type of Christian idea.

AAJ: The pundits, does it matter that they don't get it?

MS: First of all, all we're doing is playing music or jazz. Does it matter? I think you've got to have a framework to grasp. Does it matter? That's an interesting question. Where there is a misunderstanding, our lives have been struggles. Because of that, maybe we're just part of the framework where we get all the prestigious festivals, this and that. If there was some business community or some critical community that understood us and just understood what we were about and we were part of that, that would be cool, but I don't know if we were just that easily a part of that. I don't know if we would be who we are or if there would even be a reason for us to wake up in the morning if things were that easy for us. So the struggle to be understood even by people who should understand, that's part of our whole mechanism of who we are, part of the whole process, struggle and or avenue that we are involved with. It's a challenge, that's all I have to say, in dealing with it. It's a challenge. I don't know if it's necessary because I think people that feel our music feel it no matter what those people would say. They've made up their mind as to what we represent to them. If there is misunderstandings with the jazz establishment or people that work for the jazz establishment, so be it. I think the friction that we create from that is what does build our careers.

AAJ: Apart from the music, what interests you?

MS: I'm a big boxing fan. I'm a boxing fanatic actually. At this point in my life, I mean, I'm thirty-eight. I'm talking like I'm old. I'm not old, but I have been in New York for fifteen years and I have been struggling to make, to do this ever since day one when I moved here. It's been a long struggle. Things are starting to work out really well right now, but I'm basically just interested in performing, and then having a family. I've been married for ten years and we don't have kids yet. At this point, in a sense, I'm not saying the struggle has been won, but it seems like I'm going to be accepted. It's been an intense, intense struggle. A lot of other people have had a lot more of a struggle for a lot longer period. I'm not complaining, but at this point, I'm just interested in working and getting the music out there. That's what I'm interested in, to really go in the world and play everywhere. I have a lot of albums out. I'm not interested in making more albums. I'm interested in playing music live for people, and other than that, my hobbies are my hobbies. They're basically boxing. Actually, I'm interested in writing some though. I write a little. I don't know. I can't imagine, really taking up another craft. I've spent my whole life learning how to play music.

AAJ: Boxing? With the heavyweight division what it isn't today?

MS: I kind of like Michael Grant in some ways (ranked third with a record of 29-0). I'm not a Lennox Lewis fan. The heavyweight division's over, Fred. My favorite young boxer is Floyd Mayweather (ranked number one with a record of 20-0). He's a junior-lightweight (super-featherweight). I'm just interested in the heavyweight division. It's over.

AAJ: So is Oscar De La Hoya the best pound for pound?

MS: No (laughing). Oh, you're in California.

AAJ: So who is?

MS: I think it's Roy Jones Jr. (light-heavyweight). That's my opinion. De La Hoya's great, but I don't buy the "Golden Boy" image.

AAJ: I heard through the grapevine that you are done recording for a while.

MS: That's true. I also am going to continue recording with David as long as he has his Sony contract, I'll do that. I have a lot of albums out. Since 1992, I have, as a leader, fourteen albums. That's a lot. I basically kind of feel that the basic vision of what I want to say, I've put out there. So before I extrapolate on that, I just want to take some time off from doing albums. There's three things I don't want. I don't want record producers taking me for granted, like, "OK, we can get another album out of him." I don't want the jazz record buying public to take me for granted. I put an album out and, "Well, we don't have to buy this one. We'll buy the next one because he puts out two, three a year." I don't want to use a recording contract as a way to get a cash advance.

I'm really trying to find a balance as far as, I hate to use this word, but the product that's out there and the proliferation of it. I'm really trying to find that balance. I've had to record a lot, mainly because I've recorded for independent labels and some of them have better distribution than others and some of them with very spotty distribution, but because of that type of thing you have to record a lot to be taken seriously, to kind of flood the market, because unless you're on a major, there's initiative to take you seriously, but if you have a lot of albums out, they will say, "Well, we better take him somewhat seriously because a bunch of people are spending a little money on him here and there." After a while that can become pretty dangerous, flooding the market. It's just too much. So I find that I have to find some balance between all of that and to me the best way seems to be to take some time off right now from recording as a leader.

AAJ: Define Matthew Shipp?

MS: Oh, wow. I would just say I'm an experimenter with language. I'm someone that's obsessed with the idea that music is a language, therefore on some level, even though it's not a language like words, it can say something. I'm obsessed with the idea that some deep part of the universe generates this language, be it the mind or some field of energy. Where that connection between my energy and language occurs and sometimes that exploration with what that is, is where I enter and that's what I'm obsessed with.

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