February 24, 2008

Now Playing: Matthew Shipp

Matthew Shipp: Piano Vortex (Thirsty Ear) (2007)

Matthew Shipp: piano
Joe Morris: bass
Whit Dickey: drums

I had the brief pleasure of hanging out with Matthew Shipp and Whit Dickey while we were students at the New England Conservatory of Music, circa. 1983-84. One day, while sitting in the McDonald’s on Huntington Avenue, Shipp told me that he really wanted to do an avant-jazz cover of David Bowie’s “Rock’N’Roll Suicide.” I was flabbergasted and to this day I’m not sure if he wasn’t pulling my leg.

A few months later, Shipp played a solo recital at NEC (itself an astonishing feat for a first-semester freshman) accompanied by the tenor saxophonist Gary Joynes (whatever happened to him?). It was an unforgettable, brain-melting experience. Here was someone, barely twenty-one years old, who knew exactly what he wanted to do within the high-stakes, post-Coltrane, free-jazz sound-world and had set about doing it; even the program notes were suitably cosmic, a la the space-poetry of Sun Ra. It was obvious to everyone in attendance that Shipp was the real deal and that he would go on to find fame, if not fortune, in the jazz business. Sure enough, he left the provincial confines of Boston for the promised land of New York City after only a couple of semesters. Whit Dickey followed soon thereafter.

A long stint with David S. Ware’s Quartet refined and developed Shipp’s musicianship and, since 1992, he has made a vast quantity of records as a leader and sideman. Since 2000, Shipp has served as executive producer of Thirsty Ear’s “Blue Series” and has experimented of late with electronics, loops, and samples, attempting a kind of 21st Century fusion that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but which makes me think maybe he wasn’t totally joking about that David Bowie cover. (See e.g. 2004’s High Water, a collaboration with El-P which features an uncredited (and barely recognizable) cover of Minnie Ripperton’s 1975 hit, “Loving You.”).

Piano Vortex has been heralded as a “return to form” with its back-to-acoustic, uncompromisingly avant-garde approach. What’s really interesting about this record is hearing erstwhile guitarist, Joe Morris, playing stand-up bass. His ultra-clean articulation suits the bigger instrument, but his tone sounds thin by comparison to Shipp’s usual collaborator, William Parker, particularly with the bow. Nonetheless, Morris’s guitaristic take on the bass is interestingly linear and free of cliché, while Dickey kicks up clouds of cymbal washes and drum taps and Shipp does his thing on the piano, which, to my ears, has become more lyrical and less percussive as the years have gone by. In fact, much of this record sounds more like Thelonious Monk than Cecil Taylor and the overall effect is one of smooth professionalism amidst all the aggressive dissonance. In that respect, it seems to lack some of the fire and passion of Shipp’s recordings from the 1990s. On the other hand, the wisdom of maturity is something quite different from the excitement and exuberance of youth and should not unduly suffer the comparison.

Piano Vortex may appear to be a step backwards, but is still a highly listenable recording of some prickly and difficult music and, as such, is a worthy addition to Shipp’s already expansive catalog. It would make the perfect starting point for the uninitiated and, for that reason alone, gets my highest recommendation.



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