Playing improvised solo piano is essentially a conundrum. Where do you start and when does a form emerge? Music begins as sounds and a composition could be the shaping of those sounds, but what about silence and the thing that comes before sound? Avantgarde-composer, John Cage, famously framed the sound of silence on his composition "4'33" to show that music is always happening, but in a very conceptual way. Pianist, improvisor and composer, Matthew Shipp, arrives at the same point on his solo piano album, Zero
, but not through the reduction of minimalism, but the expansion of melody. Indeed, Zero
, in spite of its philosophical implications, is not a difficult avant-garde work, but an album that can be enjoyed simply as great jazz music bursting with musical ideas.
The idea of the zero is referenced on several compositions: "Zero," "Abyss Before Zero," "Pole After Zero," "Zero Skip and a Jump," "Zero Subtract From Jazz" and "After Zero" and in the liner notes, writer Steve Dalachinsky also quotes Shipp pondering the subject of zero:
"What existed before existence zerois the universe a vacuum state where things seem to exist but in reality are flows of energy that twirl in kaleidoscopic flow patterns? does it go back to its ground state in zero? what is a piano? is it a zero? is it an alphabet of language of zero? how could it be anything if ground bass is zero? is zero base potentially everything? or is it one? I have an album called ONE. also, I like emanationsdoes one come out of zero? is one zero? who gives a fuck? is the universe one big fucking joke or is it zero joke?"
Musically the question of zero becomes a joyful journey through many different musical forms. The title track alone contains enough musical information for several compositions as melodic lines evolve with hints of baroque ornamentation, solid swing and knotty breaks and a theme emerges that would have made Thelonious Monk proud. There is a strange feeling of the piece moving forward and yet starting again and again. The music seems through-composed, every phrase shining like diamonds, and yet there's an immediate energy that comes with improvisation, music being made in the moment. To quote another title, a "Pattern Emerge" and a form becomes. These forms are also historically conscious. The sounds of "Pole After Zero" could only have been made by a pianist who knows Duke Ellington and the complex anatomy of swing.
Inspiration can be a simple thing, the quotation of specific songs or the use of clearly identifiable musical tropes, like a certain riff. Shipp's inspiration is more complex than that. It is rather subtle layers. The idea of an archaeologist digging through the ground to find layers of different historical periods comes to mind. Shipp seamlessly integrates all the ages of jazz into his expression and comes out with something that is both old and new.
Another thing is the attention to harmony. The lush harmonic landscape of "Cosmic Sea" is stunning in its sensitivity and far from the sledgehammer that Shipp has used to great effect on some of his other pieces. Here the language is more delicate. A composition like "Piano Panels" says it all. Shipp knows the tiniest details of his instrument and brings out all of its shades and colors. The music is both bodily, intellectual and spherical, but most of all immediately accessible. Despite the complexity of musical information, it reaches out with melodies and rhythms that connect the past, present and future. Zero
is both a return to the roots and a new beginning that offers an alternative path to solo piano playing.