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Thursday, September 21, 2023

Clifford Allen - Singularity Codex - Matthew Shipp on RogueArt (RogueArt, 2023)

 By Lee Rice Epstein

It’s a real special time for appreciators of jazz and improvised music, with many recently published tomes, biographies and autobiographies of greats like Sonny Rollins and Henry Threadgill, compendiums of The Cricket and FMP Records, deep explorations of regional collectives like the Williamsburg loft scene. But there’s a kind of book, I’ll say outright to start off, that we simply need more of, which is the kind of slim and sprightly—yet thematically and informationally dense and rich—book Clifford Allen has written on pianist Matthew Shipp: Singularity Codex - Matthew Shipp on RogueArt.

“Sprightly yet thematically dense and rich” is a phrase one could equally apply to Shipp’s piano playing, and one of the key features of Singularity Codex , Allen’s first book, is how well it manages to expand the story of downtown New York music, specifically Lower East Side music. Shipp’s life and art intersect with the stories of dozens of artists and writers who populated or cycled through the Lower East Side, including Michael Bisio, Rob Brown, Whit Dickey, Mat Maneri, Jemeel Moondoc, Joe Morris, Yuko Otomo, William Parker, and David S. Ware. As one of the finest writers about modern jazz and improvised music, Allen has a particularly masterful way of bringing together personal reflections, engaging writing about improvised music, and research with first-person interviews. The result is something of an oral history of Shipp’s time in New York, from his arrival through the production of 25 titles for French label RogueArt.

As described in the book, these titles (some still pending release) comprise a group of work, nearing its completion. Unlike Shipp’s releases on other labels, the works produced with label founder Michel Dorbon are, as Shipp explains in the acknowledgements, “a distinct body of work within the arc of my bigger body of work—one emanation of Shipp.” Allen traces the development of this body, from Shipp’s pre-RogueArt days playing with Moondoc, Ware, and Parker in various groups, to the emergence of his quartet Declared Enemy, which kicked off the French label (though it was ultimately destined to be release number four). Allen moves between researched sections—richly drawn portraits of a vibrant scene in constant motion—and extended interviews with many of Shipp’s long-time collaborators, first Parker, Brown, Dickey, and Morris, and later Otomo, Dorbon, and Jim Clouse, the owner/engineer of Park West Studios, where Shipp recorded all his RogueArt titles (and many more).

The final section, a runthrough of all the recordings, from Declared Enemy’s 2006 debut Salute to 100001 Stars - A Tribute To Jean Genet to as-yet-unreleased duos with Steve Swell and Kirk Knuffke, a final RogueArt solo album, and what will be Ivo Perleman’s first album for the label, and Shipp’s last one, a tidy alpha-omega of sorts, particularly given the huge number of records they’ve made together. It seems, in its own way, just right. As does the final section of Allen’s book, where he reprints in full the liner notes to The Reward, written by the late poet Steve Dalachinsky. It’s a beautiful dual tribute to Shipp and Dalachinsky, two artists whose close bond is reflected on by everybody throughout the entire book.

One final note. In 2019, the French label RogueArt released Symbolic Reality , the first album in nearly 20 years from Shipp’s string trio, with William Parker and Mat Maneri. It was something of a reunion and also something of a rekindling, in its way. Somehow, for me, it represents a key landmark in the RogueArt catalog, just as the earlier albums did with hatART/hatOLOGY. In fact, I’ve only heard about 10 or 12 of the albums discussed in the book. If I heard zero, or only one or two, I would find it just as valuable and engaging; Allen’s writing is about Shipp and, naturally, about much more than Shipp—it is about music, art, and culture, and about the fires still ablaze, obscured by what, from a distance, may appear to be mere embers.

Available from RogueArt