Matthew Shipp – Zero (ESP-Disk, 2018) *****Tom Burris
We are witnessing a very advanced stage in Shipp’s development as an improviser. Twists and turns that seem too abrupt, too jarring, turn out to be perfectly correct as hindsight reveals the natural logical flow of musical ideas. Need a quick reference? Queue up “Zero Skip & A Jump” and you’ll be treated to a jam-packed two minute burst of absolute brilliance. The flow of ideas and dexterity in the execution of them work in tandem so well that the division between mind and body seems to have been completely obliterated.
These improvisations are elevated into the realm of composition by an internal logic that only Shipp (and his finest collaborators) comprehends. We mere mortals have to arrive at the conclusion of a piece to see where it was all heading. His technique expands here to include the pounding of the damper pedal, which adds tension to music that was actually already tense enough. It's an extra layer of exposed nerves thrown into the pasta pot. Shipp is also utilizing the damper pedal for his patented cloud catcher, where he plays a staccato chord and then quickly stomps the damper to catch the cloud that barely hangs in the chord's wake. And let me be clear: none of his extended techniques are used as novelty tricks. They are employed only when musically appropriate to the setting – and even then only as necessary enhancements. The music itself calls on these devices to be used. I know it sounds like bullshit, but I swear that's how it works.
And I know art is what you project onto it, blah blah blah... but I swear I see a disabled person get out of a wheelchair and dance ballet on “Abyss Before Zero.” And I hear Captain Beefheart pounding out his original piano compositions for Trout Mask Replica on the broken-toothed blues of “Blue Equation.” And I definitely hear Matthew Shipp composing nature program scores for Sir David Attenborough on “Cosmic Sea.” These compositions contain worlds – and these worlds are infinitely more welcoming than the MAGA scum-fuck reality we are currently inhabiting. Don't know about you, but I need this music.
In conclusion, this: Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Herbie Nichols, Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor, Matthew Shipp. Put on Zero and tell me I'm wrong.
Roscoe Mitchell & Matthew Shipp – Accelerated Projector (RogueArt, 2018)****½
No leader, no follower. This is a musical conversation between two players of different generations in which nothing is forced; and yet everything moves relentlessly forward. The performance, recorded live in Sardinia 13 years ago, is finely structured but jumps around in the unencumbered way in which natural conversation unfolds. The overall structure shows the two masters diving straight into it, conjuring up biblical imagery & Stravinsky, before planting seeds of conflict during the third movement.
When the storm ensues with great intensity in movement IV, the ground floor texture seems to be present in the form of a question. Specifically, what if Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons performed the most intense sections of Rite of Spring? That’s the ground floor. The skies are even nastier – and Mitchell & Shipp fly through them.
What follows is a post-storm vigil with Mitchell on flute – but the broken discord in movement VI occasionally escalates into argumentative battle between the players. Eventually there seems to be an “agree to disagree” conclusion before the seventh (and final) movement of full resolution and (yes) projection. Why this performance has remained out of the public eye for so long is the question, as it is collaborative automatic composition of the highest order from start to finish.
Matthew Shipp – Sonic Fiction (ESP-Disk, 2018)****
On Sonic Fiction, the Shipp/Walerian axis is augmented by longtime Shipp associates Michael Bisio (bass) and Whit Dickey (drums). The musicians experiment with the quartet format in general on this recording, featuring solo tracks & an entire track that is simply one sustained note (“The Note”).
Highlights include “Blues Addition,” - featuring bluesy runs and seventh chords from Shipp & Bechet-like note bends from Walerian – and the title track, which begins as a duo between Shipp & Walerian, goes quartet, then trio (moving so strongly I hadn’t noticed Shipp had dropped out for a while after it occurred), moving from free style to bop, and all over the map dynamically. On “3x4” Bisio & Dickey show how quickly they can solve any equation presented by Shipp – but once Walerian enters the class, Shipp seeks out more complex variables to throw at the group. A fascinating study.
See also “Lines of Study,” which features Shipp and Bisio busily prodding the music forward, while Dickey and Walerian adopt a more restrained approach – even as their playing on the surface remains frenetic. Here – and on the title track – is where the quartet sounds its most perfectly mature.
Matthew Shipp – Magnetism(s) (RogueArt, 2017)****
Magnetism(s) is a reissue – of sorts. Disc 1 is a remastered recording of Magnetism, released on the Bleu Regards label way back in 1999. The second disc is a live performance recorded at The Stone in NYC in 2016. Both discs feature Shipp with longtime bassist William Parker and looongtime collaborator Rob Brown on flute and alto sax.
Disc 1 is a set of mostly shorter selections, all titled “Magnetism” 1 thru 20. Like Sonic Fiction, don’t expect to hear the entire trio playing on every track. (Ex: “Magnetism IX” is a 34-second solo walking bassline from Parker.) Instead expect a constant tinkering with the trio format & a challenge to your perceptions of what a trio should be. One of the highlights here is “Magnetism IV,” a Shipp solo that runs from ragtime to free that is also abstract and smart with a subtle humor underneath. “Magnetism VIII” is all about power: power clusters from Shipp, Parker’s huge single-note plunks, Brown’s alto aiming for the stratosphere. “Magnetism XVIII” features Parker playing arco and Brown on flute. Shipp and Brown take short stabs at each other until fully developed lines appear – and then they take those long lines and wrap Parker up in them. (Brown & Shipp also drown out Parker toward the end of “Magnetism XV.” William Parker doesn’t have to take this kinda shit!)
“Vibration & Magnetism” kicks off the live disc with fire and intensity, Parker sawing away, Shipp pounding clusters with his left hand while his right hand flies into the upper register of the keyboard, Brown playing ecstatic runs… And when the dust clears, they settle on a march tempo? It works, actually. Even after the march is over, its implications shape the rest of the music that follows. If a march seems unlikely, wait until you hear the pretty balladry that Shipp & Brown move into during “Resonance Magnetism.” It doesn’t last long though, as the build-up to full-throttle happened so fast I didn’t realize what was happening until we were there. Parker plays eight-note runs underneath as Shipp plays in his own time signature, banging out block chords before taking the whole thing higher. Closing out the disc is “Impact & Magnetism,” a gorgeous trio piece that begins as a melancholy Brown vehicle and evolves into a ‘70s Miles-style vamp.