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Bon Voyage? 

Matthew Shipp busts a hole

Wednesday, May 12 1999
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Photo by Laurie Stalter
YOU HAD TO FIGURE THAT MATTHEW SHIPP EITHER got cancer or got born again. Otherwise, respected 38-year-old musicians don't go around dropping proclamations like "I have completed my opus" and announcing they're not gonna make any more records. But no, the pianist was just whirling his cape a bit. Drama is a big part of his music, too. It comes naturally to a man who, raised Episcopalian and educated in Catholic school, was struck by the theatricality of the church's Mass.

"You've consumed the body and blood of a god, and therefore you're becoming one with a god," says Shipp on the phone from New York. "That alchemical magic really informs how I think of music."

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Though Shipp is making a change, it's not like he's getting nailed to a cross. He'll continue to be a member of saxist David S. Ware's torrential quartet. He'll keep touring, and is even now booking nationwide gigs with bass dominator William Parker, his duo partner on the 14th album Shipp has led since 1990, the new DNA. Shipp calls DNA both a final installment and, tellingly, a cornerstone -- not the capstone -- of his career.

"I don't want people to see me as a machine," he says, his voice gravelly, casual, with a low chuckle always ready to break out. "I've done a lifetime's work in a short period of time, so I really feel the need to step back and assess things. I'll still be playing a lot, but if I do get another record contract and go back in the studio, I'll do it with a fresh perspective."

Shipp has picked a good moment to focus our attention on his achievements. And while we're focusing, we might as well also take a look at the fearsome Mr. Parker, and at a new Roscoe Mitchell recording in which both Shipp and Parker contextualize their roots.

SHIPP HAS BECOME A BEACON OF HOPE AND renewal for jazz's avant-garde, which has been more or less submerged for 30 years; a new generation of collegiate ears has swiveled toward this dude with the rad sound. Part of the appeal has been Shipp's warm freshness, part the fact that three of his mid-'90s releases were on Henry Rollins' 2.13.61 label. And part might just be the times: College-radio playlists are featuring more "free" jazz than they have in a quarter of a century.

In spite of his place in a tradition characterized by energy, noise and rhythmic abandon, Shipp never plays for more than a minute without offering a generous serving of that indefinable quality called melody.

"I don't see any other way to structure a musical event that seems organic to my personality," he says. "Lyricism even goes with the abstract quality of it. Jackson Pollock is lyrical. Even if you're gonna bust a hole through the canvas, you gotta do it with some type of grace."

As befits a recording he sees as a summation, DNA takes an especially considered approach. "I was thinking about being spacious," says Shipp. "It's just strings and wood -- it lends itself to giving people a chance to breathe."

As he often does, Shipp also adds a conceptual theme. "With a musical composition, you're usually dealing with a basic cell that expands, just like a body. And I'm dealing with the idea of going back to your roots, trying to find out who you are."

Hence DNA. The CD's alpha and omega tracks are fairly straight readings of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" and "Amazing Grace" -- the embryo laid bare. In between, Shipp's personal abstraction reigns. But is it abstraction, really? Take "Cell Sequence," whose wide-open spaces are broken by twitching "points of sensation," as Shipp calls them; adjust your inner vision, and you can imagine animalcules. The hectoring circular riff of "Orbit" could represent either the microcosmic whirl of electrons, or the cosmos itself -- the composition feels like one of Sun Ra's galactic-travel epics. "Mr. Chromosome" balances scientific repetitions with occasional blue-noted passages that spring straight from the soil.

But where the biochemistry really subdivides is in the piano's interaction with the acoustic bass of 14-year friend and collaborator Parker. "William is like a rock," says Shipp. "He's one of the most focused, solid people I've ever met. He just rises above everything."

The two play as parts of the same body most of the time, but they can also dance apart, as on "Genetic Alphabet": Shipp doesn't even enter till Parker has put on an extended exhibition of superchording, his string overtones now and then imitating feedback; the bass ushers the piano in with grave orchestral bowing; they switch clefs (Parker screeling high, Shipp rumbling low); at last the bass fades out like a squeaky bicycle wheel after a bad spill. Bravo.

PROLIFIC AS SHIPP MAY BE, PARKER CAN'T BE FAR behind. Long a bulwark of avant-garde bass with Cecil Taylor, Charles Gayle and many others, he's been leading his own unstoppable In Order To Survive quartet for several years now; his last two headlining CDs for the AUM label were both doubles. And his latest, Lifting the Sanctions (No More), is his second solo-bass recording in the last four years.

There's an old joke. After days of incessant jungle drums, Bwana is going nuts. But when the noise finally subsides, the native guide warns it's about to get much worse: "When drums stop, bass solo begins."

The joke doesn't account for William Parker. Here's one bassist whose clarity, cohesion, phrasing and rhythmic push are only the beginning. Embedded in each oracular statement is a methodology appropriate to it -- the variety of sounds the man musters is incredible enough that, in the liner notes to Sanctions, Parker feels the need to describe no less than 14 ways he plays bass. "Drum technique: A percussive technique where I relate the bass to a trap drum set" -- he goes on to explain which string corresponds to which part of the kit. Or "Turn bowing: The concept of turning the wrist outward, flicking the bow in a forward motion on a downbow." The only downside to this music lesson is that it leaves little room for the poetic liner notes Parker usually includes with each CD. Nevertheless, he does manage to squeeze in a few words about what he stands for: "It is not about jazz, it is about sound as revealed through the mysteries of life. About those who have said yes to the whisper of a flower and the shout of a blue hurricane."

SINCE MOST OF THIS HAS BEEN ABOUT INDIVIDUALITY, it seems right to wrap it up with a little perspective on broad cooperation. It was 1990 when Matthew Shipp met Roscoe Mitchell, the wind player who had begun his renowned association with the Art Ensemble of Chicago in 1969. Shipp cut a beautiful duo album with Mitchell on 2.13.61 Records in 1996, and has been one of Mitchell's top piano choices for years. Now comes one of those rare moments in a veteran edgeman's career when he can combine the work of three generations of players -- including Shipp and Parker -- to make music that talks to you.

Mitchell has another fine album out at the moment -- In Walked Buckner, on Delmark -- but his current ECM release, Nine To Get Ready, is something special. It's nine musicians (the rest are Hugh Ragin, George Lewis, Craig Taborn, Jaribu Shahid, Tani Tabbal and Gerald Cleaver) who, for the first half of the disc anyway, subordinate their soloist egos to membership in a jazz orchestra that would turn the head of even the late Gil Evans. Not that there's anything wrong with solos; Nine, though, melds strong individual voices like those of Mitchell and trombonist Lewis to create the kind of distinctive blend you would never find in an overglossed philharmonic: "Leola" is a lovely improvised fugue based on a few preselected notes; "Dream and Response" is slow and free; the horn and piano melodies of "Jamaican Farewell" drift quietly over each other.

The end of Nine gets back to demonstrating how much booty these guys can kick. The beginning is something else -- 18 hands extended. It lets you know that this "outside" music can, when it wants to, get inside anybody.

MATTHEW SHIPP DUO WITH WILLIAM PARKER | DNA (Thirsty Ear)

WILLIAM PARKER | LIFTING THE SANCTIONS (No More)

ROSCOE MITCHELL | NINE TO GET READY (ECM)

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