Matthew Shipp - Nate Wooley: What If?

John Sharpe By

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Matthew Shipp - Nate Wooley: What If?
What If? presents pianist Matthew Shipp and trumpeter Nate Wooley in their first appearance as a duo. Both possess illustrious back stories and, while Shipp's place as one of the pre-eminent piano stylists in contemporary jazz is assured—as much due to his staggeringly constant series of solo and trio dates as his tenure with the likes of saxophonists David S. Ware and Roscoe Mitchell—it's not too much of a stretch to make a similar claim for Wooley.

They combine on a dozen cuts in a 55-minute program, all credited to Shipp alone, although they resemble collective improvisations. Certainly Wooley is as much a key to the success of this date as the pianist, as he delivers a masterclass in adventurous trumpet. Even so, it is pitched towards the jazzier end of the spectrum Wooley inhabits, not quite as in-the-tradition as his work with his own quintet but, even so, a far cry from his more extreme solo and group situations.

Part of the attraction of the album is how different it is to much of both men's previous output. A track like "Plug Vortex" provides just one example of that atypical streak, where Shipp inhibits flow by interrupting concentrated bursts of clipped notes with pauses for silence, while Wooley's expressive slurps and plunger-muted murmurs answer his tolling keystrikes. A delicious sense of unexpected gambits pervades the disc, even after multiple listens.

Wooley has developed a range of personal techniques which enable him to spin back and forth between tonality and texture, belaying blasts of ragged overtones, hissing kissy sonorities, vocalized multiphonics and throaty growls, all mitigated by occasional forays to the fringes of melodicism. But he is always on the same page as Shipp, no matter how oblique the connection. While they rarely mirror, they nonetheless convince that they are listening and responding at a deep level, the resultant emotional ambiguity creating a substantive whole.

What they avoid are tunes, conventional progressions and riffs, though there are plenty of insistent motifs. The pianist assumes more of a rhythmic role, with his idiosyncratic, dark pounding jabbing outweighing his prettily-patterned dances, and torrential sparking runs. Even in the shortest pieces, the dialogue is restless and doesn't settle. "Cosmic Rumble" illustrates the point, starting with a grumbling bottom end and spluttering trumpet, before contrasting Shipp's rattling tremolo in the furthest treble with Wooley's sustained squeal, then finally slowing to pecked chords over which Wooley repeats an extemporized sweet refrain to take the piece out.

Although further hints of lyricism temper the prevailing austerity, as on "New Light," which passes as a distorted ballad, and "Ktu," where Wooley sounds as if he might be paraphrasing some old standard, the overall tone is abstract, exploratory and playful. But, at the end of the day, they do what all the best music does: they consistently astonish.

Track Listing

What If?; New Light; Plug Vortex; Points of Fractions; Ktu; The Angle; Nova Jazz; Space Junk; The Ball; Cosmic Rumble; Circular Juice from the Matrix; Call in Space.


Matthew Shipp: piano; Nate Wooley: trumpet.

Album information

Title: What If? | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Rogue Art

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