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.
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."
Lest longtime fans fear that the pianist's middle age has induced complacency, Shipp includes the chunky, bumpy ride of "U Feature" on New Orbit. On this midsuite track, the leader urges Smith to break out with sharp, soaring horn blasts that fire the tension and keep the drama juicy. Cleaver's whirling rhythms and wind-whispery cymbals fan the flames, while Parker's second-to-none arco bass, intensely animated even when contemplative, feeds every nuance of the track's morphing contours.
Whether rocketing to the stratosphere or slow like the revolution of the planets around the sun, Shipp's music breathes with the totality of being. In Eastern terms, it's all about channeling the almighty chi: the free and natural flow of life energy that's gotten a bad rap in recent years from its association with New Agers. Yet this energy is precisely what gives his performances their lasting substance. "As a teenager," recalls Shipp, "I had heard about this Indian singer whose music was so powerful that he would sing and he could light candles. That type of thing kind of informed how I think of music, how I think of having this power source within me that's so strong that it goes beyond any academic argument about what jazz is and just gets into the whole psycho/physical power of what it is to be alive."
However one chooses to explain it, the phenomenon of Shipp's artistry resonates far beyond the slim demographics of the jazz market in which most of his fan base lies. The pianist has drawn audiences of all ages from across the globe. He has an unprecedented production deal heading up the Blue Series -- a string of adventurous jazz CDs for eclectic indie label Thirsty Ear -- which has increased his exposure among rock fans. Thirsty Ear President Peter Gordon remarks, "As pop dominates the sales charts, there needs to be a voice to challenge convention [and] keep music growing and thriving."
In such a cross-genre environment, Shipp should continue to flourish, his work equally open to innovation and tradition. Most jazz buffs still categorize the pianist as out on the fringe, but Shipp proposes a more straightforward tack: "I don't consider myself avant-garde. I consider myself a composer of my own distinct brand of piano music."