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.


February 23, 2008

The World’s Greatest Music Collection Sells for $3 Million

Paul Mawhinney examines a Rolling Stones album worth $10,000.
Photo by Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

On February 21, “The World’s Greatest Music Collection” sold in an eBay auction for $3,002,150.00 to an anonymous bidder in Ireland. A total of seven bidders were apparently willing to pony up the minimum bid of $3 million, a sum well below its appraised value of $50 million.

Paul Mawhinney, of Pine, Pennsylvania, set out to collect every record ever made and he came darn close to realizing this goal, amassing over the past forty years an archive totaling 3 million records and 300,000 CDs. Now aged 68 and in failing health, Mr. Mawhinney finds himself needing to sell. He was hoping to keep the collection intact, to preserve the history of popular music which the collection embodies.

The ideal home for this collection would have been Middle Tennessee State University’s own Center for Popular Music. But, needless to say, the Center could not possibly have absorbed such an exponential expansion of its holdings, even if the University came up with the purchase price. In today’s economic, cultural, and political climate, I cannot imagine any public (or private) institution having the wherewithal to continue the work of this solitary man. Not even the Library of Congress was interested.

Further, as vinyl maven Michael Fremer pointed out in yesterday’s story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mr. Mawhinney could have made a whole lot more money by breaking the collection into lots:

“The way he's selling this collection makes no sense whatsoever," Mr. Fremer said. "I know these collectors. The jazz guys don't want the rock, the rock guys don't want the jazz, the LP guys don't want 45s, the 45 guys don't want LPs. To maximize your money, you could have the 45 lot, the vintage jazz lot, the Blue Note lot, the R&B lot, etc."

Mr. Fremer is, of course, correct, but this approach goes against the whole point of Mr. Mawhinney‘s life’s work and his ultimate desire to keep the collection intact and available for researchers.

Nevertheless, it is inevitable that the more valuable items will eventually disappear into the hands of private collectors while the rest is scattered to the winds. So, it does seem a shame that Mr. Mawhinney will receive a paltry $3 million - no doubt far less than his investment over the years - while the collection itself will, in the end, be dispersed or discarded.

However, little is known about the winning bidder and the transaction has not yet been consummated. It will be interesting to see what becomes of “The World’s Greatest Music Collection.”

More info here, and here.


February 10, 2008

Kyle Gann on Morton Feldman

I finally got around to reading Kyle Gann's long talk on Morton Feldman and it's well worth the read. I found his discussion about Feldman's highly idiosyncratic notation especially interesting:

Feldman liked to talk about the psychological effect that notation had on a performer. By notating those almost identical rhythms differently, or by adding a tied-over 16th-note in a context with no pulse to hear it against, he altered what the performer was thinking while playing, in order (one has to argue) to elicit a certain hesitant quality of nuance that the notation, strictly speaking, does not exactly mandate. I don't know of a composition teacher, including myself, who wouldn't throw a fit if a student brought in a piece notated this way. It flouts every professional orthodoxy of notating music, which is supposed to aim for maximum simplicity and consistency, make the notation fit the sound as closely as possible, and avoid complications that don't affect the result. Quite the contrary, Feldman's notation distances the performer from the notated page, and doesn't allow for the kind of facile sight-reading that is the core paradigm of classical music-making. My composition teacher, faced with such a page, would immediately protest, "You can't do that." But Feldman did it, and it resulted in music too beautiful to argue with.

If you've ever taken a look at Feldman's late scores, they're really quite lovely to look at but, indeed, highly inefficient vehicles for the performer. I think Gann is right that Feldman's notation forces a kind of hyper-refined attack that suits the enervated calm of the music.

Fascinating stuff.