By Chris Rich
Amid the snow swirl and chill of a late February this year,Matthew Shipp headed to Park West Studios to commence work on a solo recording which will be called Piano Sutras.
“On Wednesday February 20, pianist/composer Matthew Shipp recorded his next Thirsty Ear record, “Piano Sutras”, at Park West Studios in Brooklyn. Jim Clouse was the recording engineer and Thirsty Ear owner Peter Gordon was the producer. The recording is a solo piano recording of originals by Mr Shipp plus a couple of standards.”
Jim Clouse is waiting and ready.
“Always arriving comfortably early, with a sandwich from one of the local establishments, Matt Shipp settles into the easy chair outside the control room and begins the ritual that I’ve come to know and look forward to.
Because after the sandwich is gone, he warms up with his version of a classic jazz standard or two, or maybe three. And though all Matt’s recordings here at Park West Studios are freely improvised, his latest solo album, Piano Sutras, contains uniquely creative versions of Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps.
Just 3 times through the head of ‘Tranes usually blistering tempo, but here performed at a medium pace, is all Matthew needs to layout the logic of this innovative work. In contrast, Nefertiti is played at a faster tempo than the original, but with an interwoven melodic theme of his along with the basic composition.
Matthew recorded this CD in basically 3 six performance “sets”, with a listening break between each. By the time he had played and listened to all 18 takes, we were hearing that the last two thirds of the session, with the addition of 2 earlier takes, contained a musical experience that would be piano sutras.
Matt Shipp has recorded here in a variety of settings; at least a half dozen with tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman in duo, and bass and drum combinations. And recently a quartet date with Sabir Mateen, William Parker and Gerald Cleaver had me listening for the last 3 weeks, and it’s a new performance every time I hear it.
I believe Matthew’s ability to play whatever he hears is the result of his extensive knowledge of all music, all styles. I think the phrase ”you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been” has never been more true than with this gifted pianist. He is always moving forward,spontaneous with whatever musical environment he is in.”
Ivo Perelman has a good sense of the studio process and further illuminates the work of it.
“After over nearly a dozen recordings over the last three years,I feel that I have developed such an extraordinary communication with Matt that it is borderline telepathic. We never talk about the music before it is played , nor we discuss it later except for a few nods of approval ,usually from both of us. Although we both have individually developed an altogether different lexicon of sounds, a third musical persona arises we we play.
Matt s uncanny musicianship always takes the particular project we are doing, whatever the format, to the next level. So far he has always surprised me by taking me out of my comfort zone,opening new doors of perception each and every time we play, live or in the studio.
Actually Matt feels very much at home while recording music and is very efficient at instantaneously editing his improvised solos to build a coherent overall emotional contour . I remember when we were recording ENIGMA (Leo records October release) he thought a couple of solo piano pieces were needed to balance the naturally dense music that was unfolding with drummers Whit Dickey and Gerald Cleaver. So he sat at the piano and did exactly that , 2 perfect short takes,one after another, done with laser like precision.
Sometimes we meet to talk about music business in general or to discuss and compare practice methodology in a friendly competitive way like when he was practicing Bach chorals at the same time i was investigating Baroque trumpet literature. Like me, he is always practicing when time allows, always looking for new techniques to unlock deeper musical thoughts.
On a personal basis Matt can be very friendly and a good conversationalist . One trait of his personality that I really appreciate is that he just can’t stand unfairness and treats fellow musicians the same way he expects to be treated : in a fair and respectful way.”
Mr. Shipp offers up his thoughts on the project at hand.
“I continue to pursue my own unique brand of piano language and feel intense growth. I developed a set of compositions for this cd that compel a devotional space albeit in a jazz language-hence the title ‘Piano sutras’.Maybe the cd is a prayer to the piano gods, who knows?
Also included are a couple of little standards that just came out during the session, a ballad version of Giant Steps by John Coltrane inspired by having heard Phineas Newborn jr do this tune as a ballad and there is a version of ‘Nefertiti’ by Wayne Shorter that I did as a joke during the session but it came out nice, so we are going to use it.
It was inspired by an expanded version of some Wayne Shorter song I heard pianistKirk Lightsey do in the early 1980s. Since Wayne is being kicked around in media these days, I thought it would be cool to cover one of his songs. Both standards fit somehow into the expanded harmonic continuum of the cd.
But the meat of the cd is my own compositions and my own language and my own approach to the conundrum of improvisation on the keyboard. I think I have come to my own conclusions different from others known for stretching out in solo piano improvisational formats.”
He also takes time to share a few thoughts about performance situations and preferences.
“All musicians are ambient musicians in that they must work the ambiance in which their so called type of music is usually presented in.That is part of the art of playing. I don't have a favorite type of space. I like warm settings with resonance where I can make a piano sing in my peculiar way, a mystic type of way. I love playing in old churches.
But I am open to playing all sorts of situations, I often wonder what it would be like to play a whorehouse like a lot of early jazz functioned as a backdrop in. Of course, the type of music I play does not lend itself to function in the ambiance of a whorehouse, but it would be an interesting sociological experiment anyway.
A very famous sculptor I know wanted, as one of his sculptures, (obviously this would be a performance art piece) ,but he wanted me to play solo on an upright piano in the subway of new york city and that would have been his sculpture. I thought about doing it but decided against it for I could get beat up by some creeps who might not of understood what was going on.
But I thought about it for this sculptor is very famous and there might have been a lot of money involved. But I guess I really like concert halls if the acoustics are right for they tend to have the best pianos. Night clubs are cool if the vibe is right and the management really wants you there. Mass spectacles? Well I leave that up to the metal bands and other arena type acts Don't know if this works there.”
He offers observations on the ongoing implosion and paralysis of the pitiful niche corner of music biz tentatively describable as “the Jazz Industry.”
“The jazz industry is in stasis and has probably always worked against the music. That seems to be inbuilt into the very nature of this whole thing. Why that is I don't know. Why the risk aversion paralysis that grips every level of this horrid construct that is called the jazz industry? I don't know.
Everyone is so scared. What the **** are they scared of? Who knows? But it’s funny though frustrating to watch the cowardice of so many involved. There is so much phoniness involved in this industry. It’s like the jazz industry is all manure. But somehow, sometimes beautiful flowers grow in the pile of manure.
I just push my notes down on the piano in front of me. I guess I have the talent of being both hyper aware of my environment and yet being able to block it out and play the notes I am suppose to play.
So when I play I am praying to the piano god in the void. I call him Mr Chromosome. My songs are for him, so, when I play I am praying to him. When I play I have to make Mr Chromosome happy.”
He shares a few thoughts about the posturing and packaging that afflicts it all to emphasize the importance of meeting his own moment well.
“I don't romanticize any aspect of jazz-or avant-garde jazz for that matter. I mean I do like certain aspects of the spirit of the 1960s but hey this is 2013 and a whole new something is trying to articulate itself. As far as romanticizing any aspects of older jazz I don't spend my time trying to gain so call credibility by getting any closer to whatever feelings someone had on a record in 1940.
I mean there is electromagnetism going through the air today. We have our own thoughts, ways of doing things phrasing that is of its own time and approaches.
Obviously one must do their homework to have a vocabulary, and to begin to have some sense of what has shaped you language is an alive vital force. I want the electricity of vital living language.
The paradox is the language of jazz might be one of the most revolutionary things ever but every construct in and around jazz promotes mental lassitude of the highest order.
I see more creativity and balls in the line of Madonna-Spears-Gaga then I do in a lot of things that traffic around jazz. There are times when after looking at a jazz magazine I yearn for Iggy Pop of the Stooges period .
But don't get me wrong. The impulse behind jazz and therefore a lot of the music produced under its banner is divine, I believe in this music.”
Producer Peter Gordon summarizes the outcome.
“I've come to expect the unexpected with Matthew Shipp, but coming out of the studio session for his solo album “Piano Sutras", I was struck by his alchemic artistry that blends centuries of musical thought, yet, somehow, seamlessly makes it wholly original. And I knew Matt had reached a new plateau, when he floated back to the control room and was equally mystified by what had just happened.”
And discs still make their way to radio stations in places where listeners still tune in as KDHX host Joshua Weinstein is pleased to report.
“I host a weekly radio show called All Soul, No Borders on KDHX in St. Louis. ASNB has been on the air for 13 years this September. As its title implies, there is no specific genre for my program. I do emphasize creative improvised music in order to fill a void on the airwaves. (Of course, that is not a genre, but a multitude of methodologies and approaches to music making.) In choosing and presenting material, I search for commonalities that lie in sincerity of intent and spirit of execution between all music that I get the chance to listen to. These similarities, where seemingly disparate musics speak to one another, provide me with the course for any given program.
Matthew Shipp's music has played an important role on ASNB since the first episode. I first heard Matt in New York in the mid to late 90s. One of the first shows I remember seeing him play was with the David S. Ware Quartet. This shook my perception of what music could be. The level of communication seemed to demonstrate an evolution of the human nervous system.
At that time, I worked in the jazz department at Tower Records in Greenwich Village. It was here that I first met Matt and observed him in his daily life. He was a regular—he came in almost everyday. He would check stock in his bin and talk with a 70-something year old man named Carl Jefferson. I remember their conversations ranging from politics, to boxing, wrestling and music.
This is when I discovered Matt's albums ZO and The Multiplication Table. The experiences I had while listening to these works are hard to put into words. Primitive and complex images were pulled from deep within my brain. I could also see and experience familiar, distant, and new structures being implanted into my mind. With ZO, I can recall the experience of seeing a temple-like edifice erected, then being led on a tour through it. He would take me through rooms, often stopping to zoom into what was on a table, even magnifying the contents to microscopic detail. Then the process of demolition would ensue.
I have to mention the unprecedented musical relationship between Matt and William Parker. I know I had never heard any other pairings with the communicative intricacy, while being raw as hell, before. The rawness of it was overwhelming in the most satisfying way I had ever known. This was thrilling, to say the least, enlightening to be more accurate. I knew I would be following his work from that point forward.
I moved to St. Louis a few years after these initial encounters with Matt and his music. I keep in contact with him, regularly see him perform, and listen to all of his recorded output. Witnessing the evolution of his prowess and talent has been one of the most rewarding endeavors in my personal music listening. One such evolution, as evidenced on Piano Sutras, seems to be that he is going beyond the microscopic, at times, to the atomic and perhaps, beyond.
Matt and I have continued to speak over the years. Our subjects have ranged from the symbolic bible, mysticism, the mythopoetic, to the all encompassing vortex of Bud Powelland Thelonious Monk's (personal/musical personas), and how he sees himself in that tradition. He is a pianist, composer, improviser, and Earth muscian. He works in real time. We never speak of music in technical terms. These conversations have helped elucidate his goals for me, where he is coming from, how he sees his own art. He has a vision of his career trajectory.
Being able to present this progress, as it occurs, to my community and the wider online listening public is gratifying. The sharing and feedback over the past 13 years with my listeners made me realize that there is a need in my community for these sounds, these pursuit. This has emboldened me to keep it up.
Also satisfying is watching an audience for his high art grow in my midwestern city. This seems to me to be what the essence of a community should be—one of communication of substance and shared deep experience. So much of what is deemed great music is in the past. But there was nothing more magical about any times past as there is in the present.”