There’s a lot of electricity flying off Matthew Shipp right now. His Nu Bop is an occasion for listeners to twitch, gurgle and bang on things. It’s the kind of arrival that could nudge people away from thinking about jazz history and point them toward jazz future.
Nu Bop is an electronically freaked rhythm record — new territory for Shipp, an abstractionist piano wrangler with a rep for melodic cloud creatures. You could hear something coming last year, when avant saxist David S. Ware asked Shipp, a regular member of Ware’s quartet, to work synthesizer instead of his usual acoustic 88 on Corridors & Parallels. The resulting intergalactic fizzfest was among the most ear-pulling improvimental odysseys of 2001.
Now Shipp has taken old friends William Parker (bass) and Guillermo E. Brown (drums) from that quartet, switched Ware for windman Daniel Carter, added a wild card in all-around electronic wiz Chris Flam. And good golly, you can’t hear your mama call. Brown’s slaphappy beats are right up against your face. Parker, one of the world’s baddest and downest contrabassists, grooves like the Hoover Dam spillway. (“I’m gettin’ into it now, man,” he chortles in the wake of “Rocket Shipp.” “It took a minute for my brain to go dead.”) Back on acoustic piano, Shipp pounds out simple riff-rhythms traceable from the line of Ramsey Lewis and Joe Zawinul, or opens up crabby nebulas à la Alice Coltrane, whose Cosmic Music he wore out in his youth. Carter provides textural sustain or Ornettological commentaries. Flam leaks unidentifiable fluids from every seam, giving the album sauce and mystery.
“I used to go to clubs and dance. I’ve always been into hip-hop and downbeats, and I’ve done concerts with DJ Spooky,” says Shipp on the phone from his New York home base, his voice croaky and amused. “The challenge was to take my vision and my way of playing piana” — that’s how he pronounces it — “and try to make some kind of symbiotic relationship with the beats. I’ve been thinking about this album for a couple of years.”
Let’s see, that would take us back to about . . . 1999, the year Shipp announced his “retirement.” Well, it was never supposed to be permanent, just a dramatic way of saying he was taking a break to rest his mind and direct Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series of CDs by New York edge pushers such as Parker, Mat Maneri, Tim Berne and the electronically tricked-out Spring Heel Jack. Matthew Shipp’s New Orbit, which came out a year ago, was a beautiful collaboration with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith but not a cliff jump. While Shipp has built a substantial audience (for a non-mainstream jazz artist) since his early-’90s bandleading debut, Nu Bop could wedge him into households that wouldn’t have answered the door before.
The title is another demonstration of his theatrical gift, an excuse for an argument. Bebop it ain’t, unless you count the distant echoes of old idol Bud Powell in some of Shipp’s more ornate chordal layerings. Hard bop maybe? A dose of ’60s soul-jazz makes for only a tangent. Nu Bop isn’t even that nu, considering that jazzers like Greg Osby, Steve Coleman and even Miles Davis (with an underrated 1992 stab interestingly called Doo-Bop) have been trying to clasp hands with the Hip-Hop Nation for a decade or more. The truth is that Nu Bop fits closest not to hip-hop but to groove maniacs like Medeski Martin and Wood, and could form a nice worldwide jazz-plus-beats-plus-turntables club with Nils Petter-Molvaer (Norway), Cuong Vu (New York by way of Vancouver) and Crater (San Francisco–L.A.). It’s jazz you can break your ass to. And there hasn’t been much of that for generations.
What motivates a dude to perform a major backflip? Shipp admits a glance at his bank balance had something to do with it. “I’m starting to get a middle-age crisis, like, why haven’t I made any more money than I have? I’m 41 years old!” But the artistic concerns dominate. “I live in the Lower East Side, and I’m around a lot of people in their 20s. I try to stay in touch with what they listen to. I try to keep my approach really fresh and young.”
You can hear the musical integrity; it’s something that can’t be faked. Shipp usually records live, but this time he made full use of overdubbing and mixing after entering the studio with precise arrangements and compositional blueprints. Each instrument holds its own range of frequencies and textures, yet they work together organically. And strongly. Play it loud.
There’s one other criterion to help an artist determine if he’s going in the right direction. And Shipp can check that box, no problem: “It was fun to make.”
MATTHEW SHIPP | Nu Bop | (Thirsty Ear)