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Matthew Shipp: Sonic Fiction

Don Phipps By

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Prolific composer and pianist Matthew Shipp demonstrates his craft on Sonic Fiction, an album chock full of bluesy, quirky, sonic landscapes that suggest a late-night visit to a Tom Waits' greasy spoon diner or a starless midnight walk along a creaky fisherman's wharf. Shipp gives his talented cohorts, Mat Walerian on clarinet and sax, Michael Bisio on bass, and Whit Dickey on drums, plenty of room to maneuver and paint their own sonic stories. The result is an intriguing exploration of blues abstractions and free playing that is as evocative as it is cerebral.

"First Step" opens with a bluesy intro. Walerian's alto sax has a closing-time drawl and Shipp paints a dusky picture with his piano chords. The bass and drum float lazily underneath. Shipp stays with the blues on "Blues Addition." This piece has a feel of drunken melancholy. With Bisio providing a bass counterpoint, Walerian uses the clarinet to create extended phrases that scale up and down the registers. He slaps his tongue across the reed for emphasis. Bisio plucks and twangs underneath Walerian's plaintive moans to add color to the late-night ramble.

On "The Station," Walerian sounds part Eric Dolphy and part David Murray. He uses his bass clarinet solo to sculpt legato phrases of deep somber long notes, howls, squeals, boisterous squawks, and soft tones. Another bluesy ramble, "Lines of Energy" gives Walerian the opportunity to improvise over Shipp's pecks and probes. Bisio aggressively works the bass and Dickey explores drum timbres and rolls. As Shipp rumbles on the piano, Walerian's sax lines dance above with squeals before the piece ends abruptly.

Shipp solos on "Easy Flow." He offers up a combination of bluesy formalism and loose counterpoint. The piano phrases are complex and discordant, probing but not dark. Bisio begins "The Problem of Jazz" with a robust walk. Walerian and Dickey enter in a fury. Walerian uses the reed to blow rattling pronouncements and Dickey and Shipp splash beneath. Dickey rolls and snaps the drum kit. Then, Bisio suddenly goes from a bass walk to a kind of slappy abstract blues line. The piece ends on a single bass note.

"The Note," a novelty, consists solely of a single high note that Shipp strikes on the piano.

Shipp commences "3 by 4" with some free playing and Dickey's aggressive drumming flows beneath the piano phrasing. Bisio works the bass up and down the neck. Walerian enters on alto at the halfway mark. His elevator runs jet up and down as Shipp and company explore multiple tangents.

On "Cell in the Brain," Shipp starts inside the piano with an eerie twang. Dickey adds a bass-drum effect. Walerian's legato phrasing on clarinet extends over Dickey's drum rolls. Shipp enters with emphasis and Walerian squeals and laughs his clarinet as Shipp begins a series of single legato notes. Walerian continues to howl and hoot but never loses control. Shipp adds a splash here and there, and as Walerian finishes with a few choice legato notes, he plays a note inside the piano.

On "Sonic Fiction," Walerian dances phrases above Shipp's piano lines. As the duet develops, Shipp plays some all-over blues abstractions before breaking into a full chord march. Walerian blows hot above. The duet ends when Bisio and Dickey enter, with Bisio producing deep bass lines as Dickey adds color underneath. The playing shifts to piano trio as Bisio busily bows the bass beneath Shipp's piano lines and Walerian's sax squeals above. The bass notes turn into hot lava, and Walerian effects the fiery splashes of volcanic eruption. After the extended trio, Bisio bows a long line and Shipp enters with strong piano-chord splashes of his own. Suddenly Bisio initiates a bass walk and the music turns to bop. Shipp plays inside the harmonics and Walerian produces high notes and low. The music incorporates a mix of bop and free-improv elements. Towards the end, Shipp and Walerian perform a call-and-response with awesome technique.

Like other Shipp albums, this one remains true to his vision—blues abstraction combined with elements of free music. The improvisations on Sonic Fiction are at times breathtaking. Explosive, dark, flowing, adventurous, and challenging, this is music that engages and at times explodes. Recommended.

Track Listing: First Step; Blues Addition; The Station; Lines of Energy; Easy Flow; The Problem of Jazz; The Note; 3 by 4; Cell in the Brain; Sonic Fiction.

Personnel: Matthew Shipp: piano; Mat Walerian: alto saxophone, bass clarinet, clarinet; Michael Bisio: bass; Whit Dickey: drums.

Title: Sonic Fiction | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: ESP Disk

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