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The Tao Of Matthew Shipp


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To borrow a line from Mark Twain, the reports of Matthew Shipp's retirement have been greatly exaggerated. Some years back, the pianist announced his retirement from recording, only to make a comeback. The second time he reiterated that statement, he told us that be would only be touring and playing solo concerts. Not quite "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" from Aesop's Fables, Shipp has backtracked from his earlier declarations. Maybe it was the pandemic and his inability to move about the country and for that matter, the world. In any case, our ears are richer because of his return (although, he never really was away). These four discs are divided between recordings made before and after the global pandemic. For improvisers and professional musicians, this designation of before and after may hold significance in the history of the music.

  Paul Dunmall / Matthew Shipp / Joe Morris / Gerald Cleaver
The Bright Awakening
Rogue Art

We go back to 2012 for this very special meeting of four master practitioners of free jazz. Recorded at Brooklyn's Roulette as part of the Vision Festival, this nearly one -hour set is akin to the mayhem you might see in a classic Marx Brothers' film. Like Groucho, Harpo, and Chico's wild antics, the quartet opens with a kind of improvised bedlam. They cannot possibly power this energy jazz for an entire hour, can they? The answer, yes they can.

The UK's Paul Dunmall has a connection with the late period of John Coltrane's music, he even worked with Alice Coltrane after the great man's passing. His brand of free jazz bridges both the European and America customs and practices. Dunmall can be heard with pianist Matthew Shipp on the 2010 quartet recording Live In London (FMR Records, 2017) with the fellow Brits John Edwards and Mark Sanders. While Dunmall had not previously performed with bassist Joe Morris and drummer Gerald Cleaver, it is impossible to perceive it from this outing.

While all four musicians are playing, that mayhem I mentioned above is almost unceasing. This raises the question, who is the engine here? Shipp applies a constant hammer, as does Cleaver's perpetual motion machine. Morris's double bass attack is similar to his feverish guitar playing. When Dunmall does sit out for a stretch, we get a clearer glimpse of Shipp, Morris and Cleaver when they solo. It is towards the end of the hour, when the four have exhausted their energy that they produce their gem, a quiet beauty. Like an oyster, the agitation is the key to the riches.  

William Parker / Matthew Shipp
Rogue Art

Rereading the liner notes from Zo (Rise Records, 1994), the first duo recording from pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker, poet Steve Dalachinsky writes, ..."metaphysical musings music welcoming us into inner sanctum—peacefully disrupting our senses—chord—dischord—vamp—revamp—push pound... heaviness of dark—heaviness of light like the seasons." Nearly thirty years later and it is thankfully, same as it ever was. The two musicians have been circling each other for decades, first with Parker as maestro and Shipp student. Now, both as master musicians and torchbearers for the vanguard in improvised music today. While the two perform often together, besides Zo there is only DNA (Thirsty Ear, 1999) that documents this magical duo.

Re—Union was recorded in France, February 2019 before the coming storm that would be COVID-19. Shipp and Parker revisit several themes including "Zo" and "DNA," both a specific dialect both musicians speak. The title track opens the affair. At 22-plus minutes it begins simply enough with the pair in dialogue, Shipp's right hand applying uncomplicated figures as Parker chaperones with his robust technique. As the improvisation continues, so does the complexity, as if both musicians are proffering musical puzzles to be solved. There are familiar motifs "The New Zo" and "Further DNA" are explored and expanded. The final piece is the sober "Song Of Two," an expression of beautiful melancholy, which perhaps foretells the coming pandemic.

East Axis
Cool With That
ESP Disk

East Axis is a new name, but not a new group. It is the quartet of pianist Matthew Shipp, tenor saxophonist Allen Lowe, bassist Kevin Ray, and drummer Gerald Cleaver. The four have been working together for some time and their first document Cool With That is a keeper. First a bit of background. Shipp and Ray, who was a student of Reggie Workman and a mentee of Andrew Hill, have recorded with Lowe on several of his projects. The saxophonist, a music historian and author, may be less known to listeners, but he is greatly respected by musicians as a living archive of American music. Cleaver has held the drum chair on more than 200 recordings, from Roscoe Mitchell to Craig Taborn, Mario Pavone, Ivo Perelman, and of course Matthew Shipp's projects.

This session from August 2020 is comprised of five varied tracks, all improvised yet all somehow well ordered. Opening with "A Side," a cautious, or let's call it a tentative, exploration of quietus. Shipp's piano lays down a continuous stream of topological equations, plus with Lowe onboard, all of this recording has to some extent, a blues feel. "Oh Hell I Forgot About That" is a bit of untamed bebop that is delivered at madcap speed which would be unsafe in the hands of most other bands. Ray and Lowe fuel each other with incendiary notes spurring Shipp to constantly accelerate. If the previous performance was rapid, "Social Distance" is the opposite. Lowe's skidding saxophone crowns this very delicate blues. The band switches course with "I'm Cool with That," a Thelonious Monk—inspired blues. The quartet ends with the nearly 30 minutes of "One," a kitchen sink of an improvisation. Cleaver's accents and motor keep things interesting here as the music changes shape throughout.

Francisco Mela Featuring Matthew Shipp And William Parker
Music Frees Our Souls Vol. 1
577 Records

This session was recorded in November 2020, at the height of the global pandemic's first wave. It is the first volume of a trilogy by drummer Francisco Mela, and it is dedicated to his former band leader, pianist McCoy Tyner. The Cuban born Mela has also worked with Melissa Aldana, Joe Lovano, Aruán Ortiz, and Leo Genovese. From all appearances, this freely improvised recording is the first meeting between Mela, pianist Mathew Shipp and bassist William Parker.

Stepping into a studio with Shipp and Parker is an audacious action, but the drummer is undaunted. That is, after he survives the opening test, a 20—minute encounter. "Light of Mind" has the trademark sounds of a Matthew Shipp onslaught: percussive attack and dazzling speed. With Parker's double bass as the engine, Mela's responsibility is to hold on. His drum kit drives, or better yet is driven by the superstorm of his partners. Is he up to the task? The answer comes in the brief four minutes of "Dark Light," a meditative interlude and the 17-plus minute "Infinite Consciousness." The latter track opens with Mela's solo before segueing into an equally balanced three-way musical conversation. Mela's voice, er... drums and cymbals frame the track by modulating the energies and accenting Parker's pulse and Shipp's keyboard adventures. If this was a test, Mela receives high scores.

Tracks and Personnel

The Bright Awakening

Tracks: The Bright Awakening.

Personnel: Paul Dunmall: tenor saxophone; Matthew Shipp: piano; Joe Morris: double bass; Gerald Cleaver: drums.


Tracks: Re-Union; The New Zo; Further DNA; Song Of Two.

Personnel: William Parker: double bass; Matthew Shipp: piano.    

Cool With That

Tracks: A Side; Oh Hell I Forgot About That; Social Distance; I'm Cool with That; One.

Personnel: Matthew Shipp: piano; Gerald Cleaver: drums; Allen Lowe: saxophone; Kevin Ray: bass.    

Music Frees Our Souls Vol. 1

Tracks: Light of Mind; Dark Light; Infinite Consciousness.

Personnel: Matthew Shipp: piano; William Parker: bass; Francisco Mela: drums.    



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