Depending on your perspective, tradition can both be a blessing and a burden. Especially in jazz, it is hard to say something new and this is true as well when it comes to the noble art of the piano trio. Thelonious Monk
has been there, Bill Evans
has been there and Cecil Taylor
has been therejust to name a few innovators.
It has become harder to identify gigantic stylistic leaps, but subtle innovations happen all the time. Recently, pianists like Eri Yamamoto
, John Law
, Paula Shocron
and Marc Copland
have continued to refine the language of the tangents. Thankfully, the piano can still sing in many ways, but the question is whether we should think of the development of the piano in linear terms. Instead of talking about one style of piano jazz replacing another, perhaps it is better to think of a continuum where sounds from the past, present and future coexist in a musical language that is both familiar and strange, old and new, mainstream and avant-garde.
One of the most advanced pianists and musical thinkers today, Matthew Shipp
, have certainly thought about the role of tradition versus innovation. He is not afraid of playing standards like "Angel Eyes" and "Summertime" in his own idiosyncratic versions and has dedicated an entire album to Duke Ellington
: To Duke
(Rogue Art, 2015), but he also thinks about jazz in more general terms. His trio with bassist Michael Bisio
and drummer Newman Taylor Baker
released an album called The Conduct of Jazz
and in a way, what Shipp is trying to do on his records is to conduct experiments with jazz. He does not have a fixed aesthetic view on sound. As the poet, Walt Whitman, would say it: "I am large, I contain multitudes."
Listen to Shipp's records to hear how he morphs between different musical expressions, a multitude of sounds and yet he has a recognizable style. Back in 2009, he was a guest in Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz on NPR (1978-2011) and it was clear she was inspired and she made a beautiful sound portrait of him (see the link to the whole program at the end of this article). In the program, Shipp himself referred to his "sledgehammer," the hard attack on the keys that has become a part of his signature, but if the tangents sometimes sound like thunder and shattered glass, Shipp is so much more than an avant-garde pianist. It would be a mistake to put him in that box -just like it would be a mistake to put him in any box.
However, it would be appropriate to call Shipp a radical musical thinker and a sound explorer. He asks the question: "what is jazz?" and on his latest album with his trio with Michael Bisio and Newman Taylor Baker, he asks the question: "what is the piano?" To ask such a question, you need to be open-minded and aware of tradition and this is exactly what Shipp and his fellow musical travelers are. Piano Song
is a special album. It has been announced as his last on Peter Gordon's influential label, Thirty Ear. For a long time, Shipp has helped shaping the aesthetic profile of the label as a curator of the eminent "Blue Series" and he will continue as a curator, but Piano Song
is planned as his last recorded musical statement on that particular label. Piano Song
is not just an exit, it is also a beginning. This is perhaps Shipp's most beautiful and accessible album, filled with swing and lyrical tenderness. In fact, bassist Michael Bisio's bass playing on "Cosmopolitan" echoes Paul Chambers
' walking bass patterns on trumpeter Miles Davis
' iconic Kind of Blue
album, especially the famous riff of "So What" is somewhere in the distance. But make no mistake, while the tune is both melodic and swings joyously, it also an example of Shipp's ability to work with deconstruction and suspended time. It sometimes seems as if he works on multiple musical levels at once, interrupting patterns and playing with time signatures.
His work with texture is also at its most delicate here. "Blue Desert" feels exactly like the title says. Newman Taylor Baker plays a lonely shaker while the strings of Bisio and Shipp merge into the dusty language of a rusty zither, but there is also the dwelling blue piano chords of Shipp.
"Silence of" is a taciturn ballad, with Newman Taylor Baker's delicate brushwork whispering in the background. It is a pretty melody in search of itself. The lack of an object in the title replaced by a preposition suggests a form that evolves like an arabesque, but it is also a sophisticated way of indicating the silence in the music where even the letters disappear.
The same syntactic construction emerges in the titles "Void of" and "Nature of," indicating a process that is not finished. The music both feels through-composed and open like a sketch. Piano Song
is an album of emotionally and intellectually engaging music and the title track is a stunning aural painting that finds Shipp in his most lyrical mood, avoiding the temptation of bombastic interruption. Perhaps, the greatest revelation on this album is how the trio convincingly invites melody and swing into their language, but still in a way that is tentative and curious. Piano Song
feels like an entirely fresh take on the piano trio, a vibrant continuum of sounds that avoids the pitfalls of both mainstream and avant-garde music.