When pianist Matthew Shipp, who turned 60 in December 2020, released New Orbit in early 2001, he was embarking on an intriguing new phase in his career. He had signed with the Thirsty Ear label as both an artist and a curator of the Blue Series, which attempted to bring avant-garde jazz into the mainstream, or at least the alternative/indie sphere, via carefully assembled releases and cross-genre collaborations. Blue Series albums often featured electronics and modern production techniques, and the music valued both melody and concision. Shipp inaugurated the series with 2000’s Pastoral Composure, a quartet disc featuring trumpeter Roy Campbell, bassist William Parker, and drummer Gerald Cleaver. It opened with “Gesture,” a relatively simple theme Shipp wrote as a teenager, set to a martial beat and a bowed bass line by his bandmates and adorned with a rich, full trumpet melody. The album also included versions of Duke Ellington‘s “Prelude to a Kiss” and the French children’s song “Frère Jacques,” and other original compositions like “Visions” and “Progression” were shockingly listener-friendly hard bop tunes.
One year later, New Orbit arrived, and while it was arguably even more beautiful than Pastoral Composure, it was also noticeably darker than its predecessor. Shipp and company had brought listeners to the mouth of a tunnel, and now they were drawing them in. Parker and Cleaver remained from the previous record, but Campbell was gone, replaced by Wadada Leo Smith, and from its first notes the music reflected the vast difference between their styles. Where Campbell, who died in 2014, was a fiery player whose origins in hard bop (he studied with Lee Morgan) and big band music never left him, no matter how free his later work got, Smith, an early member of the AACM, has always been interested in space, and his playing is stark and at times mournful, with piercing notes leaping out of passages of meditative silence.
The album begins with its title track, which features a simple, almost liturgical piano melody that Shipp barely adorns; he repeats the key phrase over and over again, driving it into the listener’s mind. Parker and Cleaver are subdued, the drummer in particular — he’s kept low in the mix, his cymbals harsh and scraping at the ear. Smith is doing most of the soloing, and his notes are sometimes sour and wavering, as though they’re escaping the horn unbidden. That theme returns again and again over the course of the album as “Orbit 2,” “Orbit 3,” and finally “Orbit 4”. The second version is a piano solo, with heavy reverb making the notes ring out like they’re echoing through an empty church, or being hurled into the vastness of space, while “Orbit 3” is a bowed bass solo that masses layers of groaning harmony like the belly of a wooden ship creaking in a becalmed ocean. The final version is a short piano-bass duo, with Parker bowing again, but often in a higher register, creating a kind of buzzsaw whine buried within Shipp’s booming, clanging notes.
On “Chi,” Smith is alone for the first 75 seconds of the piece. His notes are sharp and fierce, with a deep melancholy at their heart. Behind him, Shipp pounds out slow, two-handed chords that seem to hover in place, as Parker and Cleaver surge like waves that never end, signaling a storm that’s definitely coming, but not here yet. This is the sound of dark gray clouds massing above the beach. “Syntax,” by contrast, is a delicate ballad, piano and trumpet working together as the rhythm section moves patiently forward, indicating a path without insisting upon it. Smith’s tone is so full, it’s almost flugelhorn-like at times, and he always leaves space for thought (yours, or his) between his phrases.
With the Blue Series, Matthew Shipp‘s interest in the studio as an instrument, always present, came sharply to the fore. Later albums would make it even more obvious, as the music was subject to extensive processing and post-production, but even here, in a superficially straightforward context, the use of reverb and the near-total absence of “room sound,” pre- or post-performance dialogue between musicians, or any other sonic strategies typical of jazz (Cleaver’s drums sound like cardboard boxes; Parker’s bass is so deep it’s like you’re listening from inside its body) render the music dreamlike and alien. Twenty years later, it sounds like nothing else in his catalog, and deserves to be remembered as, if not a breakthrough, certainly a peak.
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