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Matthew Shipp: The Art of the Improviser

John Sharpe By

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Any who have witnessed Matthew Shipp in action over the past few years will know that the pianist's bravura concert displays often eclipse his studio output. Unlike many jazz musicians the vast majority of Shipp's oeuvre has been recorded away from an audience. His previous four releases on Thirsty Ear have alternated between trio and solo format, but now he combines the two on this double-disc live album.

With its echo of Ornette Coleman's similarly monikered collection of outtakes, and a hint of Brad Mehldau's Art of the Trio Warner Brothers series, the album title stakes out Shipp's place as one of the foremost piano stylists on the modern jazz scene. Each disc manifests a continuous stream, drawing deep from his repertoire along with one standard. On the first, documenting a performance in Troy, New York, the pianist is joined by longtime collaborator Whit Dickey on drums, and new trio member Michael Bisio on bass, while on the second, from New York City's Poisson Rouge, Shipp is alone at the keyboard.

Even though his associations with such heavyweights as saxophonists David S. Ware and Roscoe Mitchell might position Shipp at the difficult end of the spectrum, there is nothing here which should cause alarm in the 21st century. Although free in the sense that there may be no predetermined course, the pianist references tunes (his own and those of others) as lucent beacons in otherwise uncharted waters. Melodies ring out, periodically obscured by crashing depth charge chords or by an austere classicism, but nonetheless they can still swing with verve.

Stellar interplay characterizes the trio program, with Bisio's cleanly articulated arco a muscular thrum, maintaining a constant counterpoint to Shipp's idiosyncratic mix of sunshine and thunder. Dickey adds a further layer of complexity, with his intricate cymbal patterns overlaying his pulsing polyrhythms. Each gets a solo feature, forming a segue between themes, with Bisio's particularly fine; his lyricism tumbling down the bass clef in an explosion of bent, slurred notes and buzzing multiple strings, delivered with a gravitas reminiscent of Charlie Haden. Billy Strayhorn's "Take The 'A' Train" fits easily into Shipp's universe, testament to the set's accessibility, while the majestic processional of "Virgin Complex" augmented by Bisio's haunting bowing, makes a fantastic closer.

Starting out with the title track from 4D (Thirsty Ear, 2010), the solo outing offers a more intimate glimpse of the pianist's methods. The trademark rhythmic repetitions, effervescent motifs and bass register crashes are all there, but regularly tempered by a romantic melodicism which can even, at times, recall Keith Jarrett. "Take Me To The Moon" peeks slyly out from the freewheeling improv, before segueing smoothly into the insistent refrain of "Wholetone." Providing another gentle yet satisfying conclusion is the beautifully rippling "Patmos," one of the highlights from One (Thirsty Ear, 2008).

This double-disc set ranks among Shipp's finest work and, while it is not quite career-defining, it forms a wonderful summation of his work in recent years.

Track Listing: CD1: The New Fact; 3 In 1; Circular Temple Number 1; Take The A Train; Virgin Complex. CD2: 4-D; Fly Me To The Moon; Wholetone; Model; Gamma Ray' Patmos.

Personnel: Matthew Shipp: piano; Michael Bisio: bass (CD1); Whit Dickey: drums (CD2).

Title: The Art Of The Improviser | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Thirsty Ear Recordings

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