Three decades ago, Herbie Hancock revolutionized the role of the piano by melding it with a textured funk groove. The popular result, Headhunters,
opened a whole generation's worth of ears to the accessible new sound. And it exemplified a rule that jazz players everywhere have taken to heart: context is everything.
Matthew Shipp takes Hancock's lead on Nu Bop, which encompasses a full range of sound from acoustic improvisation to funk, hip-hop, and electronica. His colleagues on this record include the rest of free jazz saxophonist David S. Ware's rhythm section (bassist William Parker and drummer Guillermo E. Brown), who translate their intuitive relationship quite effectively into the new context. Parker has never shied from new forms of musical expression, and his approach to the funky bass has an interesting angularitywhile unswervingly protecting the beat. We've heard Brown ease into down-home grooves before, and this disc offers more evidence of his fluid versatility. With the addition of electronics, Brown treads the line between programmed beats and live drumming. The odd man out on this urban workout is flute/saxophonist Daniel Carter. For the most part, he keeps quietbut when he lends his voice to the group sound, it assumes a floating, ethereal quality (regularly enhanced by effects, of course).
Shipp mixes up the performances on Nu Bop, interspersing spacey improv pieces with heavy-driving grooves. "Nu Abstract," toward the end of the record, makes heavy use of electronic textures to achieve an open, spacious feel. "ZX-1," on the other hand, is an acoustic piece in which Shipp lays down a series of evolving harmonies. "D's Choice," moments later, takes hip-hop beats to town, along with a layer of electronic sounds and scratchy noises. And of course a number straight-up urban groove pieces dot the rest of the record. A few moments of choice banter at the end of "Rocket Shipp" offer some irony on the group's adaptation to the new context:
"It took a minute for my brain to go dead, see. Once that happened, I was in it!"
Nu Bop represents a major departure for Shipp, who has recently been busy exploring the expanded range of sounds made possible through electronics. For the most part, it's a successbecause of the healthy mix of approaches and the tightness of the group. Occasionally Shipp dips a bit far into repetition for my tastes; he clearly has the talent to say more. But he also makes plenty of eccentric diversions as well, so that tendency is hardly a rule. If you have an ear for the groove and are curious about a fresh angle from the New York creative jazz scene, this is a must-listen. Just be prepared for a lower level of density and emotional intensity than you might otherwise expect from this group.