Cosmic Lieder (AUM Fidelity)
by R. Emmet Sweeney
Pianist Matthew Shipp (who was profiled in the very first issue of Burning Ambulance) turned 50 years old at the end of 2010, and 2011 finds him simultaneously looking toward the past and future. Earlier this year, he released Art of the Improviser, while this week his duo with Darius Jones (profiled in the second issue of Burning Ambulance), Cosmic Lieder, hits stores.
The former is a summation of his work in solo and trio formats. Split into two discs, it revisits earlier compositions and applies his fractured melodic sensibility to standards including “Fly Me to the Moon.” Released on Thirsty Ear, the label that’s been his home base since 1999, it was a victory lap of sorts, celebrating his indomitable independence over the last five decades.
Cosmic Lieder finds him looking ahead with the help of protean alto saxophonist Jones. Since his move from Virginia to NYC in 2005, Jones has placed his raw tone in the service of a dizzying array of projects, from his bluesy debut as a leader, Man’ish Boy, to the raucous noise outfit Little Women. His album with Shipp is an invigorating conversation between two deeply idiosyncratic musical minds.
The album title gives a clue as to their goals in this compelling song cycle. “Lieder” is simply the German word for songs, although for English speakers it has tended to indicate European romantic tunes, often composed to accompany poems, like Franz Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.” Cosmic Lieder begins with airy and plaintive constructions, mood pieces that spin out glancing harmonies that never cohere into melodies. In “Bleed,” the piano and saxophone dance around each other in a never-consummated romance.
It is in the fourth track, “Multiverse,” that things start getting cosmic, reaching out instead of exploring within. It begins with Jones laying out a tightly packed figure sliding up and down the scale, with Shipp offering rumbling bass accompaniment. They then stagger back and forth until Jones begins more throaty exhortations, which coalesce into an abrasively overpowering squawking air-horn attack. Shipp pounds out chords in an escalating frenzy until both have made the interplanetary contact their song title implies.
The sci-fi vibe continues with “Mandrakk,” which could be the name of a particularly vicious Godzilla foe (I’m seeing a giant komodo dragon). The music could be the monster’s love theme. It kicks off with some plucked piano strings and a low roar from Jones. Shipp muffles the strings while hitting the hammer, getting a harpsichord-like sound as Jones works up into the upper register, a lonely cry for our otherworldly beast. These are uncanny sounds that Bernard Herrmann, in an adventurous mood, could have co-opted for his theremin-soaked score for The Day the Earth Stood Still. It ends with a fluttering saxophone figure and a blunt exclamation from Shipp, closing another of these bewitching miniatures (none of the 13 tracks run far over 3 minutes).
Cosmic Lieder is an evocative but teasing album, churning up musical ideas and exploding them within a few phrases. Filled with the uncertainties of a first encounter, each tune is a provocative exploration that tests each musician’s boundaries. An exemplary minor work that eschews major thematic statements, it finds movement and harmony in the shadowy cul-de-sacs of their restive imaginations.