Personalizing the Piano: Matthew Shipp, Cooper-Moore, and Ran Blake in Performance


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The strengths of these pianists stem from the vast differences among them--in the creative process, in the production of the sound, in the structure of the music.
Matthew Shipp, Cooper-Moore, and Ran Blake
World of the Piano Concert Series, Northampton Center of the Arts
Northampton, Massachussets
February 2, February 9, and February 16, 2007

The intent and resulting achievement of piano improvisers is to make the sound of the piano their own. How this is done, of course, requires a certain dedication. Each pianist reveals the shape of this dedication by how the instrument is approached, the body language used in playing and the actual playing itself. All three challenges combined represent the ongoing conversation between the instrument and the mind's eye of the pianist. To impart aspects of this conversation, three pianists—Matthew Shipp, Cooper-Moore and Ran Blake—came to the Northampton Center of the Arts for the Annual World of Piano series during the month of February.

Matthew Shipp

Matthew Shipp began the series. Filled with motivation, the minute he sat on the bench at the piano he was totally absorbed, undistracted and determined to reinvigorate the musical cosmos. As many times as I have seen Shipp, he has never once reneged on exposing the richness of the palette of the keyboard. His playing is intense and relentless. The potency of his playing became the way in which the totally abstract arrays of chords and sequencing evolved into melodic structure, familiar or not. The dissimilar motions of his hands translated into patterns of discovery that built up in sonic complexity, as though the fingers themselves created a digital rhythmic structure which culminated in chordal crescendos. Then these patterns would break down into numerous, repeated stroking of the keys, inviting the entrance of a quiet lullaby ending in single-note closure. Shipp moved between the instrument's bass and the treble, making the center of the keyboard his foundation while employing ornamentations so judiciously that he effectively integrated his intellect and imagination with his instrument.

Shipp has said that he sees his performances much like the solving of a puzzle. The puzzle is made up of the pieces from his experience; putting them together is the way the music unfolds. The first part of his playing unveiled, close to its conclusion, a portion of the melody of "My Funny Valentine," somewhat skewed but beautifully rendered. Shipp's "Patmos" and "Gamma Ray" along with a version of "Angel Eyes" dominated the thematic space for the remainder of the concert. A brilliant, often lyrical, take on Ellington/Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train" summarized Shipp's understanding of time. That he could create a new spatio-temporal context for this well-known melody, which he stretched and dilated rhythmically and metrically, suggests that for Shipp the contemporary is a matter of using the piano to transform familiar compositions into musical structures that have never existed before.


Cooper-Moore challenges the piano to speak to the audience. He challenges himself to use the piano as a communicative tool. Soloing is rare for him; his public persona comes across as gregarious and animated.

At the outset of the performance, he took off his shoes in a flagrant gesture in order to, you would guess, ground himself with the vibrations of the piano. His directness translated to a vivacity and effervescence on the keyboard. Sometimes it seemed as though he were attempting to concentrate everything he knew into one sonic rally. First he settled in with a couple of tunes from his recording The Beautiful, one of which was "Pooch," dedicated to the bassist Wilbur Morris. He balanced the breaking up of melodies with a traditional, non-abstract coherence. He distinguished carefully each musical concept he exposed. For example, an unrelenting fluidity frequently gave way to an eruption of gestures, after which he would pause to rediscover the keyboard again. Often his fingers alternated with his arms to meet the keys.

Between pieces, he took in deep breaths before he continued. Tremolos and syncopation enriched his playing as the performance progressed. His short fingers were strong and solid as they played the keys. The motions of his body reflected his tenacity in reaching the place toward which he was headed. He constantly re-focused and repositioned himself. You could see him looking ahead, blind to the audience, aware only of the sound he was making. Finally, his fingers landed where he had been trying to put them all night—or so he said out loud. What they found was a boogie-woogie. He played it forcefully from the center of the keyboard to the ends to the center again multiple times. The experience projected the result of an artistic epiphany. And then there was silence. He was finished just like that... just as he had stopped four other times in his musical quest.

Outright eccentricity characterizes Cooper-Moore. His desire to create a relationship with the audience originates from his heart. It is his heart that begins and continues the relationship; everything else falls into place, one musical phrase after the next.

Ran Blake

In contrast to the communicative Cooper-Moore, Ran Blake immediately withdraws from the audience. The piano was placed perpendicular to the audience rather than parallel to it, with the pianist at the far end, so that the audience could see his expressionless face but not his hands. Blake wants the distance. He wants to be in his own space. His music is that intimate and his mind that close to his fingers. It is important, then, that the listener accept his shyness as a factor in his music.

The extremely slow pace of his music conveyed the studied nature of the compositions, which themselves flow into one another as if to construct a continuous piece of music. Blake fashions his music academically. Each piece has a source that is premeditated. The shape of each, therefore, unfolded logically without flourish or expressionistic touches. The subtleties within the music soon surfaced, reflecting reminiscence, a connection with time and place, melancholy and tenderness. The themes of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and "Make Someone Happy" snuck slyly into the intricate web Blake was weaving.

The idea of a unbounded hugeness is not one to associate with Blake. But the idea of smallness is. His music rotated around slight and shifting adjustments as the pianist moved his hands within tight limits. His body demonstrated when he stretched those limits: you could observe the way he strained to reach the bass keys because his position was riveted to center. Blake's music synthesized details of recognizable melodies with the breadth of the artist's own insight.

Despite the economy of movement, all the fury that improvisation can contain existed. But it was toned way down—sometimes, even, to a place of inaudibility. Blake's music said more that any words could ever say. For that reason his extensive program notes were a shock to my system; such an abundance of words hardly seemed necessary to explain the lack of bravura in his playing. In fact, no words are required for the appreciation of his music.

The strengths of these pianists stem from the vast differences among them—in the creative process, in the production of the sound, in the structure of the music. What all three do share, however, is the drive to communicate from within the deep internal recesses of their beings. Each sings his own song.

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