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Monday, December 7, 2020

Matthew Shipp at 60, an Interview

Matthew Shipp @ Roulette, June 14, 2019. Photo by Peter Gannushkin


by Paul Acquaro

Today we celebrate the 60th birthday of pianist Matthew Shipp. An influential presence on the Downtown NYC music scene since the 1980s, Shipp is a creative and prolific musician who leads and appears on many projects. In the following Q&A, Shipp talks about his work, from solo playing, to the important duos throughout his career, to his group and side-man work. We also discuss the impact of the pandemic, of course, and the ever changing New York music scene, as well as some other topics. Following the interview are links to the reviews for his recordings from 2020, which I hope you check out.


Paul Acquaro: Happy 60th birthday... it seems like it has been a busy time for you leading up to this milestone. We've reviewed at least 11 albums that you are either leader or player on from this past year alone (and I know there are ones we have missed) - and at least half the year was pretty unusual! Could you talk a little bit about what the past year has been like for you?

Matthew Shipp: The last year has put so many things in perspective. I have found a way to keep developing and growing –so the cliché "where there is a will there is a way "-has really come into focus. I’ve managed to stay busy and keep some projects going despite. The obvious thing that it has impacted is the stream of income from touring but I still managed to string together a bunch of things that did not depend on touring but that did have an income stream involved in it. At the beginning of the pandemic the studio where I practiced closed for a while-[I do not have a piano in my apartment]-so I ended up practicing at the apartment of a fellow musician –[one whose recordings you review on this site]. He was very kind in letting me use his place. The practice studio is now back open. Also unrelated to the pandemic –I had a very bad fall in March --- was raining and I slipped and fell hard –I was pretty messed up by this fall and was basically in bed for a couple of weeks, bruised up. but after 3 weeks was back to normal.


PA: Over the past year, and before, you work in many formats: group projects, solo work, and duos. How do you choose what projects to work on? Is there a plan or is it improvisation?

MS: I am not sure if I find projects or projects find me. Earlier in my career I was hungry for experiences so I was just open to throwing myself into so many different contexts. In the file cabinet in my brain I’ve always had different files –one file is my work as a leader –which has always seemed to include a trio –solo—and various duo projects with trusted partners.-I’ve always seemed to have a file in my head for profound sideman gigs which manifested in my longtime sideman gigs with the David S Ware quartet and with the Roscoe Mitchel note factory. Then it seems like I have a file in my head for various special projects. This just seems to be the way it falls. I don’t know why.

PA: For the albums on which you are the leader, how do you develop the ideas? Pick the musicians?

MS: I do think of albums as an extension of a concept –not just as a string of songs. As a teen in the 1970s I grew up in the time of concept albums in rock/pop and a concept album that influenced my concept of putting a CD together is an album like Bowie’s "Ziggy Stardust’’. An album to me is a organism in and of itself. There is a mix between /the musicians I work with inspiring the concept /–or coming up with the concept and then finding the proper musicians who allow it to unfold. As far as writing for the personality of specific musicians Ellington is the ultimate model. I think in my case the concept of the album generates everything and I happen to be lucky at attracting the specific musicians in each situation that can bring the vision to life.

PA: What about the solo recordings? For example, from this year you have released The Piano Equation (Tao Forms, 2020) and The Reward (Rouge Arts, 2020), how do these come about? How do you conceptualize a solo recording?

MS: As a pianist a solo setting is something you usually end up hitting you head against. It is implied in the history of the instrument. It took me a long time to get the confidence to structure solo albums and performances. The first solo CD I recorded was "Before the World’’ –on the German label FMP—a live gig from the FMP festival. It was not released till 1997 and before that came out I recorded a studio solo called "Symbol Systems" on a label called "No More Records". Symbol Systems which has been out of print was reissued last year on Hat Art.

The solos are a real condensation and focus on the actual piano language and tend not to have the extra musical theme type of premise that my other CDs do-thou my current solo CD "The Piano Equation " does deal with the quest for that mystical alphabet that underlies the whole music. But on a very basic level the way a solo album comes about is by sitting down at the instrument and just plating it. The solo CDs are dramas about the pure theater of just playing the piano.

PA: You also have long-standing collaborations, like with saxophonists Ivo Perelman and Rob Brown. It seems like a duo collaboration is different than both group and solo efforts - more intimate in a way. What do you look for in a musical partner? What makes it work?

MS: Duos have become such an important part of my identity. And I have had many duo partners. Duos have become a major staple in my language – I have kind of become a specialist. The first thing that makes a duo work is the openness to each others language between the duo partners. The second thing is the commitment to whatever the gestalt is between the 2 partners and the commitment to have that concept keep growing. Most of my duos have been with peers who are around my own age. With my peers we tend to have a very similar concept of phrasing and how the duo will breathe. We tend to have a very similar world view as it relates to the music. We are peers - we come to it with a very similar viewpoint. I also have duos I am very proud of with the elders whose bands I had sideman gigs with. These include David S Ware – we recorded a duo called "Live at Saint’Anna Arresi". This is on AUM Fidelity. I recorded a duo with Roscoe Mitchell –"Accelerated Projection " on the French label RogueArt. The CD with Roscoe was recorded in 2005 at the same festival in Italy that the CD in David was recorded at in 2004. AS far as these CDs with the bandleaders I did sideman gigs with the psychological space is a little different then the CDs with peers like Ivo or Rob Brown. But the CDs with Ware and Mitchell are interactive duos without a leader and I am very proud about how they came out-very proud. Then there are duos with a younger generation like the duo CDs I have done with Darius Jones on AUM Fidelity or the duo I did with Nate Wooley on RogueArt. Playing with conceptual geniuses of a younger generation like Jones and Wooley are a lifeline to me –they really allow me to recalibrate myself and refresh myself. But my major partners have been my peers Rob Brown and Ivo Perelman. Rob and I moved to NY around the same time in the early 80s-and we where playing duos in Boston before we moved to New York. My very first album was a duo with him –"Sonic Explorations’’ on Cadence Records. We now have a duo out on RogueArt- "Then Now" - With Ivo so much has been written on our commitment to the unique world we generate together in our duo. Both Rob and Ivo are among the greatest players on their instrument in the world. – I also have a duo CD out with a fresh new talent-composer and conceptualist Mat Walerian. That CD is called "The Uppercut". It is on ESP records. In my opinion it is very special. I also have duo CDs out with two great spirits and players –Sabir Mateen and Daniel Carter. And a very special duo with the great Joe Morris on guitar –"Thesis’’-on Hatart. That CD created some controversy for whatever reason back in the day. And there are my duos with bass- with William Parker and with Michael Bisio –I also have a duo with Joe Morris playing bass. Oh and there are two duos with Maneri - one on HatArt one on RogueArt. Duos- duos –duos –duos –duos.

PA: You also seem to move easily between being the leader to being a valuable sideman. What attracts you to a project?

MS: Not sure what attracts me to a project accept the idea of doing something. As far as moving between leader and sideman it is balancing being a manager or dedicating yourself to bringing someone else’s vision to life. I would like to think my language is elastic enough to create my own world but to also be able to be a part of say David S Ware’s world which is a different compositional vision then my world –though related.

PA: If someone asked “where should I start to get into Matthew Shipp’s music?", which album would you say to start with? Why?


MS: I would never know what to tell people who ask me what album of mine should someone start with. It depends what day you ask me I might have a different answer. We always think our current album is the one –and that might be true. In that case my current trio CD "The Unidentifiable" might be the one. Or my current solo CD "The Piano Equation" might be the one. Other then that if someone’s entry would need to be me doing another composers music I suggest my Ellington tribute I did on RogueArt. It is called "To Duke" – and I really do think it is one of my best CDs. Michael Bisio is on bass and Whit Dickey is on drums on it. Also I think there are 2 CDs I did for HatArt in the 90s that are real entries into my world. One is a trio with William Parker on bass and Susie Ibarra on drums. It is called "The Multiplication Table." – The other is my string trio with Mat Maneri and William Parker. The CD is called "By the Law of Music."

Another aspect of my work is quartets and I think my first 2 CDs on the thirsty ear blue series are an important part of my universe. Both CDs are quartets with different trumpet players –but the rhythm section is me-William Parker and Gerald Cleaver on drums. The first CD "Pastoral Composure’’ has the late great Roy Campbell on trumpet. The second CD “New Orbit " has Wadada Leo Smith in trumpet.

PA: So, at 60, you've accumulated life experience - what advice might you have for the Matthew Shipp who came to New York City in the 80s?

MS: At 60 if I could give a younger me any advise I would not give me any. I am pretty cool with where I have ended up and if I had any changes in things I would not be exactly where and who I am now. So that would mean I would have needed to make the same mistakes I made to end up where I am now if in fact there are mistakes. I don’t know.

PA; Speaking of NYC, how has the music scene, specifically the Downtown scene changed over the years?


MS: I think now in the New York music scene people think less in terms of camps. People do have their scenes but there seems to me to be a little less rigidity about scenes. When I moved to NY in the early 80s there where very defined ways of thinking. There was an uptown school –[Wynton ]—and downtown there was a white and black scene – the white scene more or less around Zorn –the black scene is what has become to be seen as the Vision Festival scene. Of course musicians as a whole are very open people so people did projects with each other. But the outlines of the schools seemed defined back then. I get the sense that people don’t give a damn about crap like that any more. But I could be wrong, at 60 I don’t hang on any scene anymore and I don’t exactly know what is on people’s minds.

PA: As mentioned in the first question, we are currently dealing with a pandemic that has had an unprecedented impact on so many aspects of our lives. What are your thoughts on the long lasting impacts of the pandemic on the music/concert scene?

MS: I have no idea when we come out of the pandemic how the music scene will be structured or who jazz festivals will be booking or how any of this will work or look. I just keep my focus on developing my playing. When we come out of this and how we come out of this is anyone’s guess ,so I am embracing the fact that I have so much focused time to work on my art. That is the hand of cards we have been handed –that is what we must focus on. the rest will take care of itself whatever it is.

PA: Ok, back to now... are there any trends, or musical ideas that you have found interesting lately? Anything that has had an influence on your music?

MS: The major thing that influences me is that I am alive and I have at least another day. It is great to be 60 and get up and be able to practice or to know if I give a concert that some people would show up and need the language that I have to share. I mean Coltrane was dead when he was 40. Charlie Parker was dead when he was 34. Clifford Brown was dead when he was 25. So if I am 60 I get another day to wake up and work on my music. Wow.

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Reviews featuring Matthew Shipp from the Free Jazz Blog in 2020:

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