Space Is the Place

Jazz pianist Matthew Shipp explores tradition and the territory beyond

Matthew Shipp is widely regarded by broad-minded critics as the most innovative jazz pianist to come along since boundary-buster Cecil Taylor in the 1960s. As an improviser and a composer, Shipp employs both silence and sound as a springboard for tuneful invention, embracing a cosmic perspective that simultaneously plays within the jazz tradition and pushes beyond it.

On more than three dozen albums in the past decade -- half of those as session leader -- the outspoken maverick has wrestled with the big issue of "What is creation?" To find the answer, he says, "I look at a music event as a living, breathing organism, just like the universe or a planet." And he uses his keyboard's 88 black-and-whites as the ultimate navigation vehicle. "The piano is kind of a spaceship action painting to me," explains the artist. "It's my job to make it come alive and to make it move through space in an eloquent way." Some might argue that these are trippy, hippie-ish statements for a so-called "serious" composer. Shipp would likely counter by letting his music do the talking.

Shipp began taking piano lessons at 5 and played at the local church, but it wasn't until around sixth grade that he started getting into jazz via his parents' Ahmad Jamal albums. From there he branched out in every direction, soaking up the virtuosic finger style of Oscar Peterson, the introspective moodiness of Bill Evans, the percussive melodicism of McCoy Tyner, and the ear-bending energy of Cecil Taylor -- all before hitting high school. At the same time, Shipp fortified his formidable jazz foundation by exploring quintessential bandleader Duke Ellington and ample bop and pre-bop heavyweights such as Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and Fats Waller.

Laurie Stalter

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Sample of Matthew Shipp's "U Feature," from the CD New Orbit. Click the "play" icon in the control console below.

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The classical masters deeply informed his growth as well -- but not, of course, the ones you'd expect. After moving past the obvious names (Beethoven, Bach, et al.), he discovered the late piano works of eccentric Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. "He was a turn-of-the-century psychedelic," explains Shipp. "He was to classical music what Jimi Hendrix [another influence] was to the blues." The pianist closely studied Scriabin's pan-harmonic system, a unique method for making sense of unusual chord changes that departs from the 12-tone atonality of Schoenberg or Webern. To this day, Shipp incorporates elements of Scriabin into his original works.

Then there's his unusual attraction to musical personas. "As a teenager I was really into David Bowie and the way he created these characters like Ziggy Stardust," Shipp says. "Ziggy was the Rock 'n' Roll Messiah, [big band leader] Sun Ra was from Saturn. So I created this character that was this sort of mystic mathematician, Mr. Chromosome. And I used to translate his language into music."

Clearly, the 40-year-old Shipp has traveled many light-years to forge his unique identity as a musician. His development has been complex and not without its uncertainties. Reflecting on his 1988 debut with saxophonist Rob Brown, the modern classical-influenced Sonic Explorations,he says, "Even though I was very aware that I [was] a jazz player and that I was trying to sound just like myself, I was also trying to escape from being a jazz player at that point."

Throughout his career the pianist has struggled to reconcile this paradox. After he began working in the early '90s with saxophonist David S. Ware, one of the only avant-gardists on a mainstream label, Shipp says, "I got into the head space where I [was] really proud of being a jazz musician." But the feeling didn't last. "I go through phases," the artist attempts to explain, "where I'm just trying to be a Matt Shipp musician, where I'm not worried about my jazz roots or anything. I think I'm there now."

Regardless of how "jazz" he may feel, his far-reaching music never falters in its conviction. His latest release, New Orbit, exemplifies this fervor. A logical extension of the meditative modes introduced on his last CD, Pastoral Composure,the album explores a space-conscious ensemble sound that's far less dense than either his typical collaborations with the Ware Quartet or his own knockout-punch recordings from a few years ago.

New Orbit opens with a simple melodic phrase; by repeating it in elegant variations throughout, Shipp gives the work a unified, suitelike structure. His bandmates neither rush nor hold back, letting the movements unfurl with natural grace, like the gradual blooming of a flower. The album has a kind of slow-motion beauty that's thoroughly engaging each time you experience it. Shipp sets up harmonic patterns that seem almost to levitate on the quiet spaces between the notes. He explains the value of this approach: "It opens things up to a more circular universe where time is more suspended and one can kind of inhabit this circular, eternal world. So it gives the music a more ceremonial or religious type of vibe."

Though Shipp firmly establishes the ground rules at the start of New Orbit, he curiously stands aside in a number of sections, letting his bandmates interpret the piece on their own. Given the high-level facility of his allies -- veteran trumpeter Leo Smith, ubiquitous bassist William Parker, and tasteful drummer Gerald Cleaver -- this method is not a problem. "One of my favorite piano players is Duke Ellington," says Shipp, "and he would let his ensemble speak. The piano feeds the ensemble material and sets the moods, but I don't think it's necessary for me to play all the time. I'm not trying to be Oscar Peterson and have a jazz piano virtuoso display. I'm trying to create sound objects that move through space and are beautiful. There's a lot to be said for understatement as a compositional device."

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