Pianist Matthew Shipp‘s current trio, featuring bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey, have two new albums out—neither of which is on Shipp’s longtime label, Thirsty Ear. Root of Things is on the newish Relative Pitch label, and The Other Edge, on which they back saxophonist Ivo Perelman—to whom the disc is credited—is on Leo. (When I asked Shipp about this, he explained that he’s still very much on Thirsty Ear, and will in fact be releasing a solo album through them later this year, but had only just put out a solo album—Piano Sutras—in September 2013, so chose to issue Root of Things elsewhere.)
This is the second studio album by this incarnation of the trio, following 2011’s Elastic Aspects; they can also be heard on one of the two discs making up 2011’s The Art of the Improviser live set. Dickey’s been a partner of Shipp’s for a long time—he was in the pianist’s first trio from 1991 to 1997, overlapping with both men’s (and bassist William Parker‘s) time in the David S. Ware Quartet, then returned a decade later, on 2007’s Piano Vortex, with Joe Morris on bass. Morris, for his part, stuck around for three more albums—Right Hemisphere with alto saxophonist Rob Brown, Cosmic Suite with tenor saxophonist Daniel Carter, and another trio date, Harmonic Disorder—before leaving in 2009, whereupon Bisio joined. Bisio and Shipp also released a duo album, Floating Ice, on Relative Pitch in 2012.
Root of Things (buy it from Amazon) lives up to its title; it’s a slower, more thoughtful album than some previous Shipp trio discs, and seems to be all about stripping the trio’s music to its essentials. His playing is less frantic than on Piano Vortex or Harmonic Disorder; as the album-opening title track begins, the notes fall like scattered raindrops on a pond. Dickey’s drumming skitters and darts, a gentle hi-hat pattern here, a few isolated rolls across the tom there; he’s not so much attempting to establish a rhythm as setting up a feeling of constancy, permitting Shipp to confidently explore and extrapolate the melodies. Bisio’s bass tone is thick and rubbery, less guitar-like than Morris’s was; he fills the space between the two men as though the air itself is thickening. When he steps more fully forward, on the second track, “Jazz It,” his importance becomes impossible to ignore. It, too, does what its title suggests, beginning with a walking groove straight from the mid ’60s, thick blues chords from the piano bolstered and driven forward by Bisio’s bass and Dickey’s much more direct and emphatic drumming. Shipp’s never been a totally free player in any case; as he says in a recent interview with Search & Restore, “people always think of free-jazz as just making stuff up on the spot. But I operate as a composer as any other jazz composer.” Tunes like “Root of Things” and “Jazz It” make that abundantly clear.
Stream “Root of Things”:
Each member of the trio gets a prominent solo spot on Root of Things; Bisio launches the nearly 10-minute “Path” with more than five minutes of moody bow work, and the first three minutes of the aptly named “Pulse Code” are Dickey’s time to clatter and thump, before Shipp and Bisio join him, spitting out staccato, eruptive phrases, coils of notes that dissipate as quickly as they appear. Shipp, for his part, begins the album’s final track, “Solid Circuit,” with four and a half minutes of solo piano before his bandmates come in, creating a lurching, throbbing groove that allows Dickey to dice the rhythm into chunks as Bisio, like always, fills the spaces between.
If Root of Things documents the Matthew Shipp Trio presenting a snapshot of their collective identity circa late 2013/early 2014, The Other Edge—a sequel to a 2012 release, The Edge—shows what they can do in service of someone else’s artistic vision. Hearing these three men behind Ivo Perelman, when two of them worked with David S. Ware (Dickey was the drummer for the Ware quartet from 1992 to 1997, appearing on Third Ear Recitation, Earthquation, Cryptology, Dao, and Oblations and Blessings), inevitably forces listeners with long enough memories to make comparisons. Perelman is a powerful saxophonist who does at times recall Ware in the way he catapults around the horn’s entire range, vaulting from deep, chest-rattling low notes to piercing squeals and back, but he has little of the other man’s interest in harmonic complexity or incantatory repetition of cell-like structures. He flies all over the place rather than sticking to a range and exploring it in depth. He also prefers to wander from one phrase to the next, sustaining energy through momentum rather than by establishing clear, linear connections between what he just played and what he’ll play next. It’s an approach that’s challenging to follow at times, because Perelman doesn’t seem to care whether you can follow him or not. He’s a total master of the horn, though, so every move he makes is deliberate, and therefore worth the listener’s attention.
By opting for total improvisation, allowing the music to be defined by who’s playing it rather than any pre-imposed structure, Perelman grants Shipp, Bisio and Dickey an extraordinary amount of latitude, which they take full advantage of. The first track finds them listening to what the saxophonist is playing and responding to it with a great deal of intuition and respect, while also spending plenty of time doing their own thing. But as the disc goes on, there are moments when duo conversations will erupt between Perelman and each member of the trio, as though Shipp, Bisio and Dickey each want to test their own musical language against the saxophonist’s, find ways to communicate with him that will bring him more fully into their universe. And ultimately, they’re successful in doing so, which is what gives The Other Edge its vital and compelling energy.