I’ve been friends with Matthew Shipp for almost 25 years. I’d already been listening to his music for a year or two before we met for the first time at the Vision Festival in 1998, where I saw him perform with the David S. Ware Quartet and met a number of people with whom I’ve had personal and professional relationships ever since. Honestly, going to that show was one of the most important events in my life as a writer-about-music. I’ve interviewed him many times over the years, for Jazziz and The Wire and the Village Voice; I’ve had him on the Burning Ambulance podcast; I’ve even put one of his albums out on Burning Ambulance Music.
He’s always maintained a high rate of production, putting out multiple albums almost every year. But 2003 seemed to be a particularly intriguing time for Shipp — he was in a phase where he was combining the sounds of a conventional jazz group (a trio or quartet) with electronic music and programmed rhythms, and doing other things that were even less “in character,” if you were one of those people who thought of him as just an acoustic free jazz pianist. The five records he put out that year are fascinating, both individually and collectively, and that’s what we’re talking about this week.
Equilibrium kicked things off in January 2003. It was a quartet session featuring Khan Jamal on vibes, William Parker on bass, and Gerald Cleaver on drums, but it also featured electronics and post-production from Chris Flam, founder of the Mindswerve studio in lower Manhattan. Flam and Shipp had collaborated for the first time on 2002’s Nu Bop, which had Daniel Carter on saxophone and flute and Guillermo E. Brown on drums. Equilibrium is mostly a set of short, concise compositions with looping melodies and propulsive rhythm, which Flam subjects to dubby echo and sudden edits, occasionally adding some eerie synth zaps. There are some abstract, atmospheric pieces, like “Nebula Theory,” but the punchier ones like “Cohesion” and the title track are the album’s heart.
Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp, which came out a month later, is exactly what it sounds like: a collaboration that’s more of a confrontation. Shipp recorded tracks with Carter (playing trumpet), Jamal, Parker, and Brown, then handed them off to Antipop Consortium, the avant-garde hip-hop group consisting of MCs Priest, Beans, and M. Sayyid and producer E. Blaize. Antipop had released their own brilliant third album, Arrhythmia, the year before on Warp Records, and what they do here isn’t far afield from that; their voices bounce back and forth, ricocheting off each other, as murky synth lines and thunderclap beats explode from all areas of the stereo field and the jazz players’ contributions are chopped up like samples, sometimes buried in the mix like half-heard accents. Shipp, meanwhile, is playing some of his most conventionally beautiful piano, even when it’s being fed through electronics till it sounds halfway to Autechre. On “A Knot in Your Bop,” he’s straight-up quoting (at length) from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. Really.
In May, the electronic production duo Spring Heel Jack released Live, a disc featuring Shipp, saxophonist Evan Parker, guitarist J Spaceman (aka Jason Pierce of Spiritualized), William Parker, and drummer Han Bennink. This was an outgrowth of two studio albums, Masses and Amassed, that they’d made with those players and a few others in 2001 and 2002. It consists of just two tracks, the 36-minute “Part I” and the nearly 40-minute “Part II,” recorded in Brighton and Bath, England just four months earlier, in January. Each performance straddles the line between total improv and electric jazz-rock in the vein of Miles Davis circa 1970; they’re absorbing and occasionally shocking, though they simmer more than they boil over.
The GoodandEvil Sessions, released in June, was credited to the Blue Series Continuum rather than to Shipp himself, and that’s appropriate. He plays a Korg synthesizer on most if not all of it, and the solos belong to trumpeter Roy Campbell, with trombonists Alex Lodico and Josh Roseman providing support. William Parker is on bass. This is heavily produced music; GoodandEvil were Danny Blume and Chris Castagno, a team of producers who ran their own studio, mostly remixing tracks by vocalists like Hilary Duff, Thalia, RuPaul, N’Dea Davenport and others. The tracks are a mix of hip-hop and contemporary R&B, with Campbell’s trumpet soaring over it all in the spirit of Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard. When Shipp does play a little bit of piano, as on “The Stakeout,” you can tell it’s him, but this is not an avant-jazz record by any stretch of the imagination.
The Sorcerer Sessions, from November, was another Blue Series Continuum album, but this one said Featuring the Music of Matthew Shipp on the cover. It was a collaboration between Shipp and Flam, and the music had more of an arty, chamber-jazz feel, employing clarinet player Evan Ziporyn and violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, plus Parker and Gerald Cleaver. It’s much less groove-oriented and more abstract; “Keystroke” is a kind of sound collage featuring piano, clarinet, electronics that zip and zap, and the sound of someone typing frantically on a computer keyboard. On some tracks, the piano is washed away by electronic static, like waves consuming a sand castle as it’s being built. This is a moody, contemplative record that makes the case for Shipp as composer.
The majority of Matthew Shipp’s work has been in the realm of acoustic jazz, and his current trio in particular — with Michael Bisio on bass and Newman Taylor Baker on drums — is doing astonishing work. If you haven’t heard Signature, The Unidentifiable, or World Construct, check those albums out ASAP. (Full disclosure: my wife designed the covers for Signature and The Unidentifiable, and is available to design your next album cover! Visit her website to see her work.) But he’s traveled down some surprising pathways over the last 30-plus years, and the music he made in the early 2000s was simultaneously uncharacteristic and revelatory, displaying sides of himself that haven’t been heard since. The records discussed above are all on streaming platforms (but not on Bandcamp), and the CDs are still in print. Check them out; I guarantee you’ll be surprised by what you hear.
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