This is a complete version of the feature on pianist Matthew Shipp I wrote for The Wire, published in February, 1998
Is this the face of New York’s jazz avant now? Pianist Matt Shipp’s mug can be wide open, inquisitive, or guardedly blank, his expressions range from the distracted to the transcendent. On the street, he may appear deep in thought; call his name, and he looks up, preternaturally awake, bright and alert, as though he’s been watching you right along.
Up close in conversation, Shipp is by quick turns chuckling, quirky, candid, committed and confident. Incidentally black, inescapably American, by every inclination an urbanite, he is much more than an intriguing face. He’s a conceptualizing musician—a sensibility, a mind, a being at work — raging with ideas and impulse that he plays out as dense, crosshatched brushstrokes, clashing timbres, misfit fragments, oblique voicings, notey gestures, lines that thrust, rumble, cluster, knot, wriggle like centipedes’ legs and/or flutter like fringe in the wind.
After 14 years in New York, Shipp is no longer a recent arrival, but a fullgrown gadfly, an implacable presence, an actor on a scene separated only by esthetics and commerce from the mainstream, which may not be so far off as all that. Indeed, the circle of East Village/Lower East Side players among whom Shipp has lived and worked since 1984 — folks who find the Knitting Factory a little pretentious, not to mention the touristy clubs and big name halls, the major labels and conservatory-like institutions — is pretty well established as the heart and soul of downtown. And Shipp himself is restless: still young in his late 30s, poised on the brink of something, curious to nail down what, then to push past if to get towhen.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” he starts — the obligatory New Yorker’s complaint about his neighborhood’s grit and grunge. “I want to move the other side of 14th street, just a few blocks away from the drug dealers on the corner and such situations that have nothing to do with my sound world. There’s definitely a New York school, and I’m part of it,” Shipp sort of shivers. “There are conscious parts of city life in my music. But it has nothing to do with that.
“I consider myself an impressionist, and my impressions are sidewalks and big buildings. I mean, Walt Whitman talks about nature, but you know he walked around Manhattan: it’s in his writing. In the same way, a lot of jazz has come out of Manhattan over the years. It invades your sensory world somehow. ”
Shipp lives modestly with his wife of eight years (“When we met I was trying to steal her umbrella”), plays mostly odd venues, college gigs and concerts produced ad hoc within his musical community. In Europe he’s slightly better known than at home as a recording artist, soloist and sideman, though he’s filled a bin in the Ultimate Record Store with releases on hat Art, FMP, and a slew of smaller independent imprints, as well as recordings with the David S. Ware Quartet.
Raised in Wilmington, Delaware, Shipp recalls, “My parents had the popular jazz records of ’50s, by Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. My mother knew Clifford Brown in high school; my father, back then a police captain, had a lawyer friend who represented Monk when he got busted in Wilmington once, and also knew this vibes player, Lem Winchester, who also on the police force, though he shot himself in the head playing Russian roulette. So there was some mythology about jazz around my house.” Beginning piano at 5—”I was fascinated with anthems the church organist played that were like Gregorian chants” — and becoming serious about it at 12 — “I saw Ahmad Jamal on public broadcast tv, and decided I wanted to be a jazz musician. I can’t say why or tell you the exact quality of what it was; I just remember he played a blues, and a chill ran through me” — he could might have been a conventional contender.
“I began to do a lot more practicing than before. My fantasy of being a professional athlete” — he’s lanky, with good reach, long arms and legs, fingers that could stretch over a third of a basketball — “was completely forgotten in about a year. I’ve always been a very concentrated person, putting all my energy into my interests. My energy got turned towards jazz then, rather than sports, or whatever.
“My mom brought my first Down Beat home one day; I got a Phineas Newborn, Jr. album with my subscription when I was 12, maybe in ’74? Then I started buying records, records of anything, anything, anything, anything. The very first was by Yusef Lateef. But whatever I could find on sale, if it looked interesting, I bought it.
“I learned jazz history through records. There were people I knew, like Erroll Garner, through my parents’ albums, but I also went to the library, checked out jazz history books and followed what they said with a completely open mind. Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane — these were names in the books, so I looked for their albums. A Love Supreme was one of the first I bought, and that made complete sense to me. The first Charlie Parker album I got — with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band playing ‘Scrapple from the Apple’ — I thought that was weird.”
Shipp’s interests advanced through chance purchases (“I found Cecil’s Silent Tongues in a department store’s cutout bin”) and the passions of friends (including an Anthony Braxton-Keith Jarrett fanatic). “Back then, I’d come home, take my albums upstairs, put them on the turntable and put my headphones on. Nobody knew what I was doing. My friends were all into pop music or rock and roll or soul music, and I led a schizophrenic existence whereas I had my jazz thing, but hanging with my friends I’d talk about Steve Wonder or Jimi Hendrix.. I played in rock bands, too, on a Fender Rhodes piano, which really doesn’t fit into the music I do now.
“I probably thought that I was going to be a keyboard player for Grover Washington Jr.’s band, because he lived in Philadelphia, 20 minutes away, and some guys from Wilmington had gotten into his band. At another point I was going to have a trio like the Bill Evans trio, playing standards. It changed every week.” Self-styled if willing to learn from every and anyone, as warily diffident as most post-Sonic Youth, Shipp came to abjure jazz as entertainment. His heroes and role models became what Francis Davis dubs the outcats: arch individualists on a mission, seekers who dug deep within themselves for music that’s startlingly original.
“I ran into people I could talk about things with,” says Shipp. “There was a Wilmington guy named Sunyata, spelled like ’emptiness’ in Sanskrit, but he pronounced it ‘Shin-yata.’ He was a pianist, a mathematician, a lover of books, a philosopher, all kinds of things, and he took me under his wing, tutoring me in more than music, for about five years. I found him very influential. He worked as a janitor, and had studied with the same teacher I did for a while, Robert ‘Boisey’ Lawrey, Clifford Brown’s teacher, who taught theory and improvisation. Oh, I had classical piano teachers, too, and played bass clarinet in high school band, but that’s alllong ago.
“I graduated from high school when I was 17 and didn’t want to go to college. I just wanted to practice and perform and try to play jazz. But my father had just retired from the police and gone to work for the University of Delware, so he insisted.. I went to college for one year and dropped out. “I hated school, I hate people telling me what I had to do. I hate authority figures. If they explain why I should do something, make a good reason known, and aren’t just telling me to do something, I’ll do it. But I can never get with people telling me to do something just to do it. I messed around with John Coltrane’s teacher Dennis Sandole for a while, went to New England Conservatory for a couple of years, and came to New York in ’84.
“By then I was completely into what I’m stylistically into. I’d wanted to have a style that nobody else had, but I didn’t have one for a long time. There actually was one day when it happened. I’d been asleep, having all these bad dreams and headaches and seeing these mathematical equations. The next morning I had a jam session with this sax player and it was—I don’t know what. I was like, ‘What did we just do?’ Listening back—’we’d taped it—I realized, ‘Wow, I have a style now!’
“And I don’t know if confidence or arrogance is the word, or what—but I always thought I was good enough at what I do to never consider not making it. I’ve never doubted my ability to go to the ultimate in this music. I’ve always known I’ll get my day. It’s not like I have a choice, anyway: what I do is what I do. But I honestly expected to get to New York and be discovered instantly. I thought I’d walk down the street and people would know what I was doing. I learned that’s not how it works. What happened was: Nothing!
“I mean, I found friends, instantly. I met [bassist] William Parker, who I’d really come to find, my first week here, and also Denis Charles, Frank Lowe, Jemeel Moondoc, Butch Morris, Rob Brown, Billy Bang. I wasn’t gigging with them immediately, though. I met a guy who ended up producing some tapes of mine. But it took years to get the wheels running and CDs out. I actually expected all that stuff to fall in place the week I got here.”
Then as now, Shipp wore mufti in performance, seldom spoke to his audience, indulged in mystifying, discursive improvisations, didn’t fuss with bold melodies, regular chord changes or prototypical jazz swing. His music isn’t upbeat or joyful, but rather emotionally abstracted, existential — though he can wax tenderly lyrical or darkly meditative, at will. He’s masterfully responsive, whether in David Ware’s quartet, in which he’s been a mainstay for nine years (heard on Go See The World, Flight of i, Third Ear Recitation, Earthquation andGreat Bliss, Vol. 1) or his own projects, which include unconventional piano-bass-drums trio with Parker and either Susie Ibarra or Whit Dickey (for instance, Circular Temple), duets with Parker (Zo), electric guitarist Joe Morris (Thesis), alto saxist Rob Brown (Sonic Explorations and Blink Of An Eye), reeds specialist Roscoe Mitchell (2-Z), and a “string” trio (By The Law Of Music ) with Parker and violinist Matt Manieri.
At the piano Shipp is multifarious, and, considering his occasional irony, arguably post-modern. He’s often possessed of (or inspired to) sudden juxtapositions; he casually exhibits impressive two-handed independence; he sustains high energy pulsating vamps with emphatic off-beat accents; he creates vast aharmonic fields of sound. He finds the biggest challenge of living as an artist in New York “paying bill and.trying to figure out how to get through the next couple months.” But he accepts with no more rancor than a hint of impatience that his sound is not yet hailed by the world at large.
“It’s not a matter of doing this versus that — it’s more like I’m in this, because it’s what I do. It’s my personality, I’ve geared my life to do this, there’s really no out. I have to go with it.” He almost stifles a laugh. “And once I got directed, I’ve never had any desire to do anything but my thing. I actually have a map in my head of my complete output, what it’s going to be, and I just have a plan, and I’m going to stick to it. The plan’s paying off, somehow. There’ve been a lot of sticky times, but I plow through them.
“The thing is, once I put my hands on the keyboard and close my eyes, it’s like an orgasm — the world’s great for a second. Well, when I take my hands off the instrument, come off the stage, here are all those problems again. I’ve had times of doubt: Why did I get in this? What am I doing with my life? But I’ve made a definite commitment to a certain language. I think I realized what I was getting into when I made it, so despite moments of weakness, I’m committed. It’s just that simple.
“And things have really turned around since ’89, when I started playing with David,” Shipp stresses. Ware’s freedom-and-ballads band pins the hue and cry of Ayler and Coltrane to heart-on-sleeve African-American tap-bar romanticism, wailing earnestly on such standards as “Tenderly” and “Autumn Leaves.” These tunes are ripe for deconstruction, and the pianist, fantastically busy or very spare, loud enough to hold his own, adds depth to the saxist Ware’s squeals and bellows, fluidity to bassist Parker’s throb and drummers Dickey or Ibarra’s pockets.
“I’ve was lucky enough to find horn players who were wrestling with certain questions,” Shipp notes, “like ‘Where does the piano fit in in this music at this time, especially after what Cecil’s done?’ David S. Ware and Roscoe Mitchell both decided to add a pianist to their band, both definitely wanted somebody who didn’t sound like Cecil, and I was the guy with the sound that they found.”
“I have a concept of what I want to do. I consider myself a painter: I paint pictures with tones. Within my own nomenclature, I’m extremely analytical. However, the process of playing, to me, is not one of thought per se, rather of wanting to participate in a dance of rhythm.
“I don’t like to break down my style, I like the overall gestalt to make its impression, but I guess you could say I tend to think in masses of sound. My basic whole sense of jazz piano comes out of Bud Powell. Even at my most — whatever: abstract? — I think chord/line, very much like a bebop player. I transpose that whole thought process into what for lack of a better example I’ll say a Jackson Pollack painting. There’s always a continuum of lines, an infinity of lines, being developed, very logical and melodic but interweaving. My playing can be bare, just some logical, linear progression, or dense: millions of lines built on a bebop logic, intersecting in space. I don’t form 20th century classical music ‘clusters’ — I prefer the term ‘superchords.’ I tend to form harmonic identities not as bebop changes progress, but through the intersection of millions of lines.
“If my sense of jaz piano comes out of Bud Powell, my sense of group interaction derives from the Coltrane quartet. The way I accompany sax players with harmonic clusters and an outgoing pulse is from Coltrane’s sheets of sound thing, I’m thinking of the superchord, some sort of harmony that points towards infinity, where somehow all the overtones are implied or the possibility of all the overtones exists. There’s a harmonic continuum, the impression of all the partials, all the overtones, but out of that density something distinctive arises. The continuum’s like the subconsious, where everything’s there, but something comes from it. That’s how I comp for David S. Ware, and, in fact, the Coltrane quartet is such a focal point for me that the challenge is more to avoid being directly influenced by McCoy Tyner than by Cecil Taylor.
“Subconsious processes have always been an element I’m interested in, because I’m dealing with language, essentially, in jazz, and language springs from a very deep well. Nobody knows how we attach gruntal sounds to a phenomenon, why we call this a cup, or this black, this white. The way the brain processes information is a mysterious force, just as food, through some mysterious process, gets metabolized into the body. Musicians take in food — whatever their influences are — way beneath the surface, which then emerge in this bizarre way, which is your playing. I’ve always been fascinated by that.
“When I’m playing clusters beneath David S. Ware, there’s a very dense pulse field going on, made up of millions of lines intersecting, before they’re heard as dense harmonic clusters. I like to think of the processes of thought, of millions of things going on, all on different levels — lots going on, and a lot of it conflicting, too! You’re pulled by conflicting tendencies, which may all have their own logical resolutions, but which must come into concert for an action to occur. Well, let’s take each psychological tendency as a musical line: that line, followed to it’s inevitable conclusion, would be one thing. But you have millions of things working on you, they all have their own resolution, they all combined produce a gestalt, one over-riding resolution that’s not any one of the single resolutions. So you have an event — in music, a musical event. Then you put that in context — which in music is group interaction, and within existence it’s like life! You have other people with their conflicting things, and you act in ensemble, so there has to be some sort of compromise. Well, it just gets very interesting! That’s all I’m trying to say.
“I view my music as a city, and within that city events occur. I look at each chord as a personality, a person, and another chord as another personality, and the line that bridges those chords as an event — like people interacting in a metropolis — and all of musical space/time as some type of democratic structure in which these chords have to relate.
“Is my music modal?” He shakes his head. “Not particularly. Maybe ‘pan-tonal.’ I used to have notebooks in which I’d play around with chord voicings, as technical exercises — for instance, putting an A seven flat five over F sharp seven. I’d play around with a couple notes from one chord-scale, a couple notes from the other, come to some voicing, call it anything. I would write out three notes of one chord, three of another, and come up with some synthetic scale. So I got to thinking pan-harmonically — again, lacking a better term.
“I conceive melody as a core line that maybe you can sing. Like Coltrane would sometimes come up with a little riff, just a little fragment. But if you can sing it, internalize it, feel it with your body and it means something to you, I call that a melody. To somebody else it may sound like a disjointed fragment; to me it’s a rhythmic phrase with integrity. I feel it with my body, I sing it, it popped into my head: It’s a melody.
“I’m tough on drummers. I’ve always found that the way my piano style is idiosyncratic, it’s difficult to find drummers, though I’ve been lucky. The first drummer I worked with in New York was Steve McCall, and since then, it’s been almost exclusvely Whit Dickey or Susie Ibarra. It’s hard for any piano player to find good drummers to work with — for one reason, in the modern world people don’t grow up playing in acoustic jazz groups, and for a piano player, you really need somebody sensitive to the fact you’re playing wood and strings, not blowing into a mike! A a lot of drummers who come into jazz probably had a rock background, because what else are you going to have, growing up in today’s world?
“When Steve McCall was my group’s drummer, he only used mallets and brushes. I always wanted him to act as a tympani, a melodic instrument. Of course, drums are a melodic instrument, especially when played by a great drummer, but I wanted them to be more orchestral; I wanted to be the one to generate the rhythmic interest, I wanted to be the center — which a pianois in a piano trio. I didn’t want the drummer to feel he had to light a fire under the group, to make things happen. As a leader, that’s not what I wanted to get across.
“Subsequently, I’ve changed. Having been a sideman in a couple of groups, I’ve started welcoming rhythmic counterpoint. I define swng as the parts jibing. I don’t talk to Wynton Marsalis, or players of that type; so I don’t know if they’d think my groups swing, People get a certain type of rhythmic feeling from it. I look out and see people moving their bodies certain ways, so I think there’s a rhythmically liveliness, and I personal feel the parts jibe, so I think it swings.”
“I find myself trying to clear away obvious references n the physical world,” Shipp continues. “If somebody asks me about a piece, I might tell them it has more to do with a conversation I had with an angel, than with a person or an event in the world. I deal with music for myself more in the realm of conversations with angels, having to do with that whole process of language. In fact, I’m obsessed with conversations with angels, with that whole idea.”
Who are the angels?
He pauses. “A messenger is the obvious answer.Well: We all know that we have a personality, and there are millions of other possibilities for personalities. Something surfaces — one’s personality — even though it changes. Look at energy, and how it can form into a personality; to me, that’s what an angel is. Something that’s taken on a life of it’s own, and is a form of energy. Energy that has a life of its own, that’s light. So yeah, an angel is a form of light.
“I want to get across the point also that I’m not necessarily caught up in the jazz avant garde,” he hastens to add. “I feel I have a calling to do a certain thing, but I don’t believe that straightahead music is not important, or that people aren’t doing good things in straightahead music. I’m friends with Rodney Kendrick, and I like what he’s doing a lot. I do what I do because I feel that’s where my talent lies, but that doesn’t mean straightahead music is dead. I’m not a dogmatist of any sort. I just do what I do out of my need to do it.
“That said, I’m not into the Jazz at Lincoln Center scene at all. They’re trying to make jazz legitimate, and I think the good thing about anything good is that it’s illegitimate. Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were illegitimate when they came along. If somebody’s going to come up with an idea like Monk’s—’I’ve got a way of playing the piano that’s new’—that can’t be dressed up in a way that’s going to be good for people with funding to get immediately; it’s going take years.. That’s instantly a problem for Lincoln Center. But you can’t make creativity legitimate. You just can’t do it.
“I feel they’ve been fascistic, trying to control the definition of the word jazz, which anyway is a verb, not a noun. See, Lincoln Center has a monopoly on a certain thing, and they’ve tried to define jazz as that, so they can go on making a lot more money. Hey: if you’re a conservative, you can always make money.
“As for Wynton Marsalis, although he comes off so messianic and caught up with the whole ‘jazz’ thing, I don’t get the sense he has any real interest in jazz. To find out if he really had a passion for jazz, he would have had to have been poor for a long time, and then come on in. I don’t know if he would have had to really stick it out.
“If you stick with it long enough,” Matt Shipp is pretty sure, “you’re going to find people who understand what you’re trying to do, get something out of it and have money. That’s what a record company is, especially in jazz. No record company is going to sign you if you’re doing something good, something ‘new’ or creative, because they’re looking to make a million dollars off you; they’re going to sign you because they think what you’re doing is valuable, and they have the resources—the back catalogue they’re making money off of—and they think that as long as you don’t kill yourself because you’re out on crack, as long as you stick with the business, yourself, within time it’s going to pay off for them .A record company in this type of music basically functions as a sponsor, knowing eventually you’re going to sell albums, because you’re on the road, people get to know you, whatever.
“I’ve been lucky, always managed enough to always find people to help out. Even working with small record companies. Take Henry Rollins, the rock star, who used to sing with Black Flag, I had a friend who knew him, told me he was a big Charles Gayle fan and he’d probably like what I do, so I sent him Circle of Temples and he decided to put it out on his own label. I’ve always found people. Now David S. Ware has been signed to Sony [Columbia Jazz] by Branford Marsalis, the new A&R guy there.”
What if Columbia jazz said ‘We like what you’re doing, we just want to spread you to a larger bass audience?
“They’d have to spend a lot of money,” Shipp rejoins, “I mean, that’s not up to me. Take out fullpage ads everywhere, and tell people they have to listen to me.”
And if they said, play something familiar?
Shipp scoffs—that’s no problem. “On my next hat Art album, a trio with Susan and William, the first track is ‘Autumn Leaves.’ I recorded Ellington’s ‘Solitude’ with Matt Manieri, on By The Law Of Music. And ‘Summertime’ on Zo, with William Parker.”