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Monday, November 30, 2015

Matthew Shipp Quartet: Declared Enemy – Our Lady of the Flowers (RogueArt, 2015) ****½

By Joel Barela

Down here, we wait.

For many things, we don’t have to. The sun shines a lot. It almost never gets too cold. It might just be a product of our history, and the fact that we don’t answer to that coastal pace, that now now now. We wait for the peaches. For the corn to come in season. And, maybe our most favorite (some of us anyway): we wait for the bourbon. Yeah, you can drink it at five years, but at ten … Damn. This is the talk of grandfathers.

My parents didn’t listen to Matthew Shipp in his early years. And I wasn’t around for it. But you don’t have to be there on the day it’s barreled, just as long as you’re there when it peaks. These may not be the days of Shipp’s absolute classic records. Time alone will tell us that. But damn, if listening to 'New Tension' isn’t the sonic equivalent of breaking the seal on an aged bourbon beauty, I really don’t know what is.

But first, there’s the white dog of 'Atomic Note', the album’s opening cut, and before that a 2006 RogueArt released record called Salute to 100001 Stars: A Tribute to Jean Genet. Aside from Denis Lavant (recruited to add spoken word components - culled from Genet’s work - to the project), Shipp enlisted the same quartet that we find here. The pianist was/is joined by William Parker on bass, Sabir Mateen on reeds and Gerald Cleaver on drums. In the same “spirit of the underdog” so prevalent in Genet’s writing, Shipp called the ensemble Declared Enemy. That the basis for the original album’s invention centered around Genet’s novel Our Lady of the Flowers being one of Shipp’s favorite books makes this record especially momentous. And if Shipp is still in the process of peaking in his dexterity and creativity as both player and bandleader, then it is little wonder that his second Genet tribute took so many years to materialize. As I said, you can drink it at five years, but at ten …

For the all the metamorphosis in improvised music in recent years, and for all Shipp’s remarkable invention, 'Atomic Note' sees the record into a very standard introduction - at least structurally: Cleaver leads for a few measures, followed by Parker, Shipp and then Mateen. Drums, bass, keys, horn: quartet. It's a locomotive piece for certain, but its title suggests an eruption that stays pocketed for its full seven minutes. The liner notes comment on "fission & fusion ... notes blending and melting together, flying and condensing ..." The point could be that despite all the aforementioned tweaks to this form (in process), this is a jazz record: now outplay it. I like to think, however, that Cleaver's bookends - the measures to begin and the sticks' solo final minutes following Mateen's faded blow - aren't mere coincidences or a simple follows of the jam. What with Shipp is anyway? But if it's Cleaver who's meant to shine through, he does. His hat tap to finish the track on a clean stop then becomes the note referenced in the song's title. And his playing throughout the entire album is some of the finest I've heard all year. It mediates well but asserts when it must. It asks the hard questions at times. In short, Cleaver's playing is everything that the moderators in the current U.S. presidential debates have not been.

The aforementioned 'New Tension' follows. It's one of two duets on the album - to go with one trio, one solo effort and five songs featuring the full quartet. It finds Shipp and Mateen - on clarinet - in a meticulous musical conversation; its complexity - a blend of "Euro-Classical and African-American stylings - eased into the ears by the skill and familiarity of the players. It's hard not to reference Mateen's musical beginnings. A percussionist before his switch to reeds, the rhythmic independence from Shipp's own insistent patterns is a delight, and one that speaks to the prevailing rhythmic pulse throughout the record. This whole band has an ear to the ground, feeling the sound in a very literal way, the entire operation a rhythm section of sorts.

'A Different Plane' is another full quartet number, and one that feeds a nice transition from 'Atomic Note' to the madness of 'From the Beyond'. The liner notes reference the a "id of darkness" to the piece and a structure to Shipp's playing that falls "somewhere between Paul Bley and Bill Evans" causing the piano to "bleed prism-like harmonies". The oscillation between broken and block chords shows up all over Shipp's contributions to record. That said, that fact that his virtuoso eruptions are largely contained is slightly odd given that the record is named after a novel that Jean-Paul Sartre once dubbed “the epic of masturbation". The lack of these sonic ... indulgences .... may largely be attributable to Shipp's recent claim that he is "truly finding [his] voice in ballads". On 'A Different Plane', Shipp's balladry is seen out by Parker's rocking lifeboat pizzicato.

The sense of balladry born out is grown in the opening bars of 'From the Beyond' by Mateen's tenor. Before long though, Parker's relentless bow has quickened the song's pulse, invited a hammering Shipp and induced Mateen in screams, it seems, just to be heard. Cleaver enters, and his trot is just as brisk. There is a particle-colliding other-worldliness to this mauling. Then Shipp pulls his hands off the keys ... Mateen pulls his mouth off the reed ... And for about two-and-a-half minutes, Parker's bow rides Cleaver's gallop. In the final few measures, the drums drop, Parker jumps and sees the journey out alone, faded, without a clean stop, into silence. A traditional arco generally follows a tight script, and this seems a tad more instinctive (if not impulsive). Proof? The fact that the track not only lacks definite punctuation to close but is immediately followed by Parker's lonely plucks in 'Silence Blooms'. However you view it, there is little to debate in this: Parker's bow takes what came 'from the beyond' and carries it back home.

'Silence Blooms' is the lone solo piece on the album. Shipp demonstrates his continued growth as a bandleader by not only allowing a masterful player to take over an entire track on an album - something he did earlier this year on To Duke with Michael Bisio's 'I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good' - but by giving said player a simple directive. When Parker asked what he should play, Shipp responded: "[Play] Silence Blooms." Given From the Beyond's fade into this piece and how Silence does indeed flower as the track progresses, I'm reminded of George Clinton's note to Eddie Hazel as they tracked Maggot Brain: Imagine that your mother's just died. Play that. Parker's interpretation of Shipp’s note is flawless.

The liner notes nail the paradox of Irrational by striking at the oddity that a song of said name would be so "rational, beautiful and beatific". For Shipp's part, he said of the piano and drums duet, "Each note is in harmony and has a weight and volume unto itself.” We've all heard Shipp fight his way out of confinement. It's what he does, blows up his keys and rises. This is different. This is Shipp as explorer. So often his phrasing has that cornered animal feel. Here he maps a cave. He overturns stones for us, and a builds a bridge across a bottomless pit as he crosses it. If you think I've forgotten Cleaver, I'll admit, on my first listen, I did. But Shipp, in another deft turn as bandleader, pulls back at the end to fully reveal Cleaver's kit and how well it's spiced the piece the entire time. It begs for relistens to unlock all of the drum patterns below Shipp's purposeful notes. Remarkable.

After 'Irrational', the title track arrives. As for the novel for which it was named, that book was written in prison, in secret, destroyed once and rewritten. 'Our Lady of the Flowers', the song, shares a similar intimacy and determination, but it's far from quiet. The full-quartet piece best exemplifies the possibilities of concurrent conversations. Each player isn't always interacting with the entire ensemble but they aren't exactly competing either. The conversations are intelligent but not without humor and sweat and fist-slamming. Hear Shipp crunch his keys and know this. And like any setting among old friends, eventually someone says something forceful enough or interesting enough or - in the spirit of Genet's novel - provocative enough to convene the attention of all. Shipp's exclamations are especially important as he sits out the subsequent piece. Gasp owe's as much to Cleaver and Parker's bouncing groove as it does to Mateen's stabbing tenor. In the literal sense, the trio allows the song to evolve over the course of eight minutes but the phrasing of each player makes it sound as if the piece is constantly on the brink of running out of air. That the sound consistently regenerates helps Gasp maintain its suspense. Not a note or strike seems "drawn out" for more than a blasted quarter.

'Cosmic Joke' concludes the album. It begins in trio, Cleaver's percussion not so much dainty as cautious: a peak from around the wall, while Parker and Shipp state their cases in more disagreement than harmonious conversation. Eventually, Mateen enters and the quartet sees out Shipp's inspiration. Says the pianist: "If you take away the word GOD and replace it with IT as a sustaining generating power source, any finite structures that IT generates and subsumes into itself would, at the end of time, whatever time is, have to be a joke if the generating source is truly OMNIFICENT and OMNIPOTENT."

In case it isn't abundantly clear, this record has affected me. I'd even say it's left me exposed. Often, people view those who review records as "critics". But I’m not so into the judgment thing and this record exposes me as what I've always been: a fan. Of course, I'm not a fan of everything I come across here, but, I admit, I don't generally commit words to projects that don't interest me. If I write about it, I generally do so to share it. This is different. This is one of those records that makes me want to write ecstatically. I've heard Shipp play his take on a New York sound, and yeah, this was recorded in Brooklyn, but this record has a different pace to it. It's aged and matured. It's as earthy as it is cosmic. It reminds me of home. This is the talk of grandfathers. Sure, I wasn't there when Declared Enemy was conceived and barreled, but I was here when the seal was cracked. And so are you. So pour a glass, friends. It was worth the fucking wait.


James said...

A very entertaining and informative review Joel.With so much enthusiasm in evidence how can I not buy a copy of this CD? Mine is on its way!

Anonymous said...

Rogue Art. Not Arts. Sorry. Smile.