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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Matthew Shipp - Art of the Improviser (Thirsty Ear, 2011) ****½

By Paul Acquaro

It begins all sustain and fury, a forceful melody and thick harmony raining down. The strident melody of 'The New Fact' is unleashed on the first beat and driven even harder when the drums and bass join in. Then the floor drops out and pianist Matthew Shipp lays into a spirited improvisation that is buoyed by the restrained propulsion of the rhythm section. What a start to this recording -- a two disc set of separate 2010 concert dates featuring Shipp alone and with his trio of bassist Micheal Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey.

After the opening tune reprises the melody, Bisio takes it out with a gorgeous extended bass solo. Next up is the demonic lullaby of '3 in 1', in which a dark elliptical melody is delivered disorientingly over the rumble of bass and scattered high hat. During the next seven minutes the trio paints a picture with repetition of the dark melody over complex rhythms. Dickey is featured on this tune prominently with an energetic solo.

While most of the songs draw from Shipp's catalog, there are renditions - or deconstructions - of a couple standards. On the trio recording, the rich harmonies of 'Take the A-Train' are mixed with splinters and fragments of the original tune amongst slippery beats. The solo treatment of 'Fly Me to the Moon' shares a similar transformation, but this time more ruminative and less percussive.

Shipp's solo concert is as compelling as the trio portion. His approach is everything here and his note choice, syncopations and intense use of dynamics are captivating. In particular I am drawn to his composition 'Module', the fragile dissonant melody is hypnotizing. Usually I find solo piano to be too lush or lulling, preferring at least a drum in the mix to add drive, but not here. Shipp's fierce, often repetitive motifs, delivered with such precision and conviction, serve as a perfect foil for the intense and intricate improvisations that make up the bulk of this recording, none of which is lulling.

I find this to be a very extroverted album of introverted improvisation. Its deep and thoughtful playing is quite engaging, whether in a trio or solo format.

Listen and download from eMusic.