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Before The Remix

Collapsing The Jazz Walls With Matthew Shipp

Went and Saw The World: Matthew Shipp's Music Has Expanded Far Beyond Basic Jazz Piano.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/28/2007

Matthew Shipp plays An die Musik on Dec. 1.

Jazz pianist Matthew Shipp has become renowned as a DJ collaborator, doing groundbreaking work with such mix-culture icons as Antipop Consortium, DJ Spooky, Scotty Hard, and Spring Heel Jack. So it almost seemed odd that he came alone to Baltimore's An die Musik last year-no machines, no other musicians, just his two hands and an acoustic piano. Sporting a dark-blue T-shirt, dark-rimmed glasses, and a short Afro, the long, lean pianist-then 45-sat down and played piano nonstop for an hour, creating an improv quilt of fragmented melody.

But even in this most old-fashioned of formats-the solo piano recital-he reflected his experiences in the microchip-music world. Instead of sticking exclusively to the swing rhythms that have governed jazz for so long, his left hand often hammered out funk or hip-hop beats, while his right hand imitated the repeating loops and ambient textures of computer-driven pop. At times, he'd tilt his head to the left, raise his right hand up to his shoulder, and bring down a chord as big and echoing as any synth.

Shipp never stayed in one mode too long. If he sounded like an RZA sample one moment, the next he was scampering across the keys in the wild arpeggios of Cecil Taylor. If he dug a funk groove in one passage, he'd make a sudden left turn into a Monk groove. At one point he stood up to reach in and pluck the piano's inner strings with his right hand, while he played pedal chords with his left.

The concert proved two things: The essence of Shipp's DJ collaborations wasn't the machines, but rather an approach to rhythm and sound that could be pursued on any instrument. And those well-publicized collaborations were just a fraction of his wide-ranging musical interests.

"The work I did with those DJs is sustained in my subconscious," Shipp explains by phone from his New York home. "And it's part of what it means to be a modern composer. Even as a jazz musician playing an acoustic instrument, I can't avoid the computer. It's such a part of our nervous systems now, because it's what we deal with every day. I want my music to reflect what it means to walk around in 2007, though I also want it to reflect the timeless elements in art.

"I have a certain drama that comes from popular music, certain cadences. In my mind, I don't see any difference between what I do and what a band like Radiohead does-we're both trying to make sense of the world we go around in by putting together fragments of melody and rhythm in our own ways. If I weren't an African-American jazz musician, I could be writing songs like Cat Power or Radiohead. But I am an African-American jazz musician, because that's what I grew up wanting to be."

Shipp grew up in Wilmington, Del., the son of two jazz fans. His mother knew Thelonious Monk because a family friend defended Monk when he was arrested and beaten in Wilmington in 1958. Matthew Jr. was born two years later, and he grew up in a house full of jazz records even as he shared his generation's enthusiasm for everything from Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell to P-Funk and Led Zeppelin. The teenager saw no contradiction in loving it all.

"In Nina Simone's music," he recalls, "you could hear strands of jazz, gospel, blues, folk, and classical music. Somehow it all went into her brain, got processed through her personality, and came back out as Nina Simone music. The same was true of Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. My father once said, 'I don't like hillbilly music, but I tap my foot when Ray Charles plays country music.' That became my goal-to draw from whatever source and have it come out as Matthew Shipp music."

While he was first drawing attention as a member of the David S. Ware Quartet, Shipp released his second album as a leader, Circular Temple, in 1990. When hardcore legend Henry Rollins heard it, he recognized a kindred spirit in Shipp's unflinching, nonretro attack on the piano. Shipp soon joined Rollins' short-lived label, 2.13 Records, distributed by Thirsty Ear Records. When 2.13 became inactive, Thirsty Ear owner Peter Gordon quickly signed the pianist.

"They were mostly an alternative-rock label," Shipp points out. "But Peter wanted to start a jazz department, and he asked me to head it up. We called it the Blue Series. We wanted to take a different tack with the new century. Instead of taking existing groups and documenting what they were already doing live, we'd identify a leader and come up with sidemen and a concept that was pertinent to our time. It gave the leaders a new context which stretched them rather than having them do something that they were already comfortable doing."

Typical of the unusual concept albums instigated by the Blue Series were Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp, featuring hip-hop's Antipop Consortium, and Nu Bop, which coupled Shipp's quartet with programmer FLAM, DJ Spooky's protégé. This year, the Blue Series released Free Zen Society, an old trio session by Shipp, bassist William Parker, and harpist Zeena Parkins that Gordon remixed into an ambient reverie. Last year, the Blue Series released Scotty Hard's Radical Reconstruction Surgery, in which remixer Hard did just what the title suggests to an old sextet session featuring Shipp, Parker, DJ Olive, and John Medeski.

"To me remixing's not a new thing," Shipp says. "It's what Teo Macero did with those Miles Davis albums in the '70s. A producer is like any other creative artist: They can do a good job or a bad job."

After all these electronic projects, Shipp was eager to get back to acoustic jazz. At first he was planning a trio album, but when Gordon heard him play a solo-piano piece at an awards show, the Thirsty Ear owner persuaded his jazz department head to cut a solo-piano album. That album was last year's One and it led to a long tour of solo-piano dates.

"Peter's argument was that if I did a trio album, it would be too easy for people to peg me as a jazz musician," Shipp says. "As a solo artist, I could bring in everything. A piece might sound like transitional music on a DJ album or an original composition on a jazz album or improvisation on a theme for a classical album. When I went out on the road as a solo, I could just let the music flow. I didn't have to prove I was a jazz musician, a weird free-jazzer, or the jazztronica guy. I learned how to relax and be myself."

The trio album, Piano Vortex (Thirsty Ear), came this year with Shipp's longtime drummer Whit Dickey joined by guitarist-turned-bassist Joe Morris. The 10-minute title track, which leads off the album and sets the tone, is full of Monkisms, the kind of rhythmic displacements and harmonic substitutions that throw listeners off-balance.

"Monk is always there in my music," Shipp insists. "He represents the iconoclastic approach to the piano. He shows you how to set people up to make them think you're going somewhere, and then you go somewhere different. That's part of the fun of doing this. I'm a boxing fan, so I know if you're predictable, you get knocked out." ★

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