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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Matthew Shipp Trio - Root of Things (Relative Pitch, 2014) ****

By Antonio Poscic

There’s no denying that Matthew Shipp currently ranks among the best, most prolific, and most innovative pianists in jazz. Whether playing solo, with his trio, or with some of his innumerable collaborators, his technique, style, and compositions are delightful and instantly recognizable. On Root of Things, a new chapter of his musical journey, he’s joined yet again by loyal and skillful collaborators, contrabassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey.

Together they interpret Shipp’s work in a most remarkable way. Their music yearns for the avant garde, but is, in this instance, nonetheless engaged in styles and approaches that do not test sonic boundaries or aim to stress the listener. It is a somewhat more conservative and traditional piano jazz trio. That is not to say the music is unadventurous or boringly safe, quite the contrary. Because even though superficially it might seem like pretty and enjoyable music, quite easy to grasp and to be immersed into, closer listening reveals that it is actually sewn together from elements which will pique the interest of even the most audacious and demanding listeners. This holds true for all of the six songs. The album starts with one tune which I can only deem to be beautiful. “Root of Things” is orchestrated around a soothing, repetitive theme which the musicians use as base for rhythmic, chromatic, and melodic meanderings. Meanwhile, Shipp dictates the mood: pensive and groovy. On the other side of the spectrum there’s “Jazz It” which, as the name implies, really does jazz it. It’s a tune that takes on a traditional notion and evolves it with a rolling, boppy rhythm, with Shipp’s piano following suit. As it gets busier and more frenetic, you might think it could spiral out of control, but it never does. The bass and drums pummel, the sounds are disparate yet cohesive, like a perfect storm. And before you know it, it all clears up and you’re left with the revelation of how good the music and musicians really are.

Bisio gets his solo spot during the first minutes of “Path” which he fills with a mesmerizing bass line leading to quiet, controlled turmoil, while Dickey enjoys almost five minutes of marching, pulsing soloing on “Pulse Code”. His band members join him during the closing minutes of the tune and try and follow in his footsteps. Shipp himself channels some of his solo mastery during the intro to “Solid Circuit”, which also serves as a showcase of how wonderfully Bisio and Dickey complement and understand Shipp’s music. Shipp’s signature mixture of styles and techniques, coming together in a very special and unique way, is as present here as on his recent solo records. Yet, these sonic elements are rather suppressed to accommodate the outstanding phrasing of Bisio’s bass and the rhythmic explosions and trips introduced by Dickey’s drumming. Technical prowess is not imperative, it’s the moods and intricacies of what the band plays that dominate. It’s the very chemistry between the players that impresses.

The length of the album feels just right, as well, and doesn’t fall into the trap of dragging on for too long. Each idea is explored for just the right amount of time. There’s an elusive quality to this music that makes it work on many levels, whether you choose to listen to subtle changes in tone and rhythm of each instrument as the songs progress or just enjoy the resultant soundscape. So the music is clearly great, but what about the production? After all, the piano trio, especially when varied as this one, is often hard to record properly. Luckily enough, the production is great and captures both the quiet passages and busier parts correctly.

In closing, I can’t say much else other than this is another great recording by Matthew Shipp and another worthy addition to his enormous discography. Interesting compositions wonderfully executed by brilliant musicians, what more could we ask for?