THE DOZENS: TWELVE ESSENTIAL MATTHEW SHIPP TRACKS by Steve Greenlee



     Matthew Shipp, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Matthew Shipp may be the greatest modern pianist the general public hasn’t heard of. Okay, serious jazz fans—those of us aware of jazz that sprawls beyond the borders of Wynton and Herbie – pay close attention to his music. But Shipp is not exactly a household name. Like Andrew Hill before him, Shipp is an important pianist who has not been fully appreciated while in his prime.

With a dark, powerful tone and a body of complex, almost mathematical compositions, Shipp is unique among his peers. His sound is immediately identifiable, if you’ve been listening. He has recorded prolifically, even as he briefly vowed, circa 2000, that he was done recording, having said all he had to say musically and growing ever more frustrated with the business part of the business.

Thank goodness he has reconsidered!

Shipp made a bunch of recordings under his own name in the ‘90s but truly became a force as part of David S. Ware’s stormy quartet. Henry Rollins “discovered” and championed him as a solo artist, but Shipp’s affiliation with Thirsty Ear records has shaped his most rewarding period (so far). As the artistic director of Thirsty Ear’s so-called Blue Series, Shipp has crafted a body of modern jazz unparalleled in these early years of the 21st century, under both his name and those of others. Whether recording as a solo pianist, leading a quartet, or providing passages to be manipulated by a DJ, everything Shipp does seems part of a whole, a point on a continuum. Some of his early records are out of print, but here are 12 tunes that can be obtained and are essential to understanding his development as an artist.


David S. Ware (with Matthew Shipp): Tenderly

Track

Tenderly

Group

David S. Ware Quartet (with Matthew Shipp)

CD

Earthquation (DIW Records)

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Musicians:

David S. Ware (tenor sax), Matthew Shipp (piano), William Parker (bass), Whit Dickey (drums).

Composed by Walter Gross & Jack Lawrence

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Recorded: Power Station, New York, May 4-5, 1994

Albumcoverdwareearthquation

Rating: 85/100 (learn more)

Shipp rose to prominence through Ware’s torrential music. The second of two versions of “Tenderly” on Earthquation illustrates perfectly what Shipp brought to the process. On version two, Shipp’s stacked chords form the song’s core, serving as both the quartet’s navigator and Ware’s anchor. As the tune and the improvisation progress, it’s almost as though Ware wants to veer further and further from the melody while Shipp’s deliberate chords beckon, “Here, here, David.” What chemistry.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Matthew Shipp: By the Law of Music

Track

By the Law of Music

Group

Matthew Shipp String Trio

CD

By the Law of Music (Hat Hut )

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Musicians:

Matthew Shipp (piano), Mat Maneri (violin), William Parker (bass).

Composed by Matthew Shipp

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Recorded: New York, August 5, 1996

Albumcovershippbylawof_music

Rating: 82/100 (learn more)

When Shipp plays, you can hear him thinking. He seems always to be trying to reconcile his intellectual approach with his predilection to put his fist through the keys. Here’s a good example. His analytical, mathematical mind begins to twist his own piece, and then his power takes over. All the while, Parker and Maneri must conform to his will and help him find his way, which they do. In less than three minutes, this tune takes us all over the map.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Matthew Shipp: Autumn Leaves

Track

Autumn Leaves

Artist

Matthew Shipp (piano)

CD

The Multiplication Table (Hatology 516)

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Musicians:

Matthew Shipp (piano), William Parker (bass), Susie Ibarra (drums).

Recorded: New York, July 17, 1997

Albumcovermatthewshipp-multiplicationtable

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Matthew Shipp’s trio absolutely deconstructs “Autumn Leaves.” Shipp, who likes to rumble around on the lower end of the piano, makes no bones about his intentions – he is going to make this well-worn standard his own. And he does. If nothing else, “Autumn Leaves” puts the raw power of his trio on full display. Shipp, William Parker and Susie Ibarra obfuscate and otherwise confuse the melody, and yet the result – for all its blocky chords and unyielding, stick-in-your-eye improvisation – is a thing of ugly beauty. Shipp has tried over the years to remake the piano trio in his image, and with “Autumn Leaves” he demonstrates just how dangerous it can be.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Matthew Shipp: When Johnny Comes Marching Home

Track

When Johnny Comes Marching Home

Artist

Matthew Shipp (piano) and William Parker (bass)

CD

DNA (Thirsty Ear)

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Musicians:

Matthew Shipp (piano), William Parker (bass).

Traditional, arranged by Matthew Shipp and William Parker

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Recorded: New York, January 6, 1999

Albumcovermatthewshippdna

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

What an ominous tone Shipp and Parker bring to the traditional “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” It sounds downright evil. Shipp clangs the theme over and over while Parker saws back and forth and back and forth, deliberately way out of tune. And then he saws in double and triple time. It’s hard to believe he didn’t saw right through the strings of his bass. If Johnny ever finds himself in a horror movie, he has his theme song.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Matthew Shipp: Gesture

Track

Gesture

Artist

Matthew Shipp (piano)

CD

Pastoral Composure (Thirsty Ear 57084)

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Musicians:

Matthew Shipp (piano), Roy Campbell (trumpet, pocket trumpet, flugelhorn), William Parker (bass), Gerald Cleaver (drums).

Composed by Matthew Shipp

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Recorded: New York, January 6, 2000

Albumcovermshipppc

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Recorded exactly one year after DNA, this is the album that – if you ask me – gave Shipp new life as a recording artist. Until this point, he was beginning to feel as though he’d gotten out everything he’d had to say. Clearly he was kidding himself. Pastoral Composure was, for him, an entirely different beast – more melodic, more bop-based. “Gesture,” though, is a beautifully disturbing piece of writing, propelled by the marching rhythm Cleaver lays down. The melody Shipp crafts is both optimistic and mysterious, and Campbell blows furiously over the pianist’s moody chords.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Matthew Shipp: Space Shipp

Track

Space Shipp

Artist

Matthew Shipp (piano)

CD

Nu Bop (Thirsty Ear 57114)

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Musicians:

Matthew Shipp (piano), William Parker (bass), Daniel Carter (reeds), Guillermo E. Brown (drums),

FLAM (synthesizers, programming)

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Composed by Matthew Shipp

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Recorded: New York, August 9, 2001

Albumcovermshippnubop

Rating: 89/100 (learn more)

With Nu Bop, Shipp threw down the gauntlet, declaring he really did have something new to say. Thrusting himself out at the leading edge of the “jazztronica” movement, Shipp issued an intentionally discomfiting salvo in the interest of freshening up jazz a bit. The opening seconds of “Space Shipp,” which start the album, contain nothing but a looped synth-and-drum-machine sequence straight out of the Aphex Twin school of electronica. But then Shipp reminds us this is his music, with a chord sequence that informs us this couldn’t be anyone but him. A minute into the tune, Shipp is improvising off the progression, Brown is blasting away on the kit, and the electronica loop – it’s still there, yes – recedes into the background. Shipp shows us that electronics are just another tool in the box.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


DJ Spooky (with Matthew Shipp): Ibid, desmarches, ibid

Track

Ibid, desmarches, ibid

Group

DJ Spooky

CD

Optometry (Thirsty Ear)

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Musicians:

Matthew Shipp (piano), William Parker (bass), Joe McPhee (tenor sax, trumpet), Guillermo E. Brown (drums), DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller) (laptop, kalimba, turntables, bass).

Composed by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky)

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Recorded: New York, March 6, 2002

Albumcoverdjspookyoptometry

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

And now Shipp ups the ante again, with the introduction of turntable-and-effects pioneer Paul Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky. Yet the melding of electronica, hip-hop and jazz has never sounded more natural. The cold electronic beats are complemented wonderfully by Shipp’s dark, angular chords and by McPhee’s from-the-gut blowing. It’s synthetic and yet it’s organic. By allowing his music to be manipulated by the Bowdoin College-educated Miller, Shipp cemented his position as a forefather of the idea that these three very different genres could breath the same air.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Matthew Shipp: Cohesion

Track

Cohesion

Artist

Matthew Shipp (piano)

CD

Equilibrium (Thirsty Ear)

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Musicians:

Matthew Shipp (piano), William Parker (bass), Gerald Cleaver (drums), Khan Jamal (vibes),

FLAM (synthesizers, programming)

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Composed by Matthew Shipp

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Recorded: New York, June 26, 2002

Albumcovermshippequilibrium

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

“Cohesion” is right. With the album Equilibrium, Shipp grew more comfortable in his new skin. The marriage of jazz and electronic music began to sound completely natural, thanks to Shipp’s vision and the work of the producer known as FLAM. The electronics never get in the way, and the weight of the jazz tradition never overwhelms the new conceit that Shipp has worked to perfect. On “Cohesion,” the synthesized sounds and the programmed beats are inextricably intertwined with the organic work of the acoustic quartet.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Matthew Shipp & Antipop Consortium: Places I've Never Been

Track

Places I’ve Never Been

Group

Matthew Shipp & Antipop Consortium

CD

Antipop Vs. Matthew Shipp (Thirsty Ear 57120)

Musicians:

Matthew Shipp (piano), William Parker (bass), Guillermo E. Brown (drums), Khan Jamal (vibes), Daniel Carter (trumpet),

Antipop Connsortium – aka Beans and Priest (vocals, synth, programming)

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Recorded: New York, February 12, 2002

Albumcovermshippantipop

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Bump it up another notch. Here, Shipp collaborates with the outside-the-mainstream hip-hop duo Antipop Consortium, whose two members are known by the monikers Priest and Beans. There is no rapping on “Places I’ve Never Been,” as there is on some other tunes, but it all comes together on this tune: the free association of jazz, the cold calculation of electronica, and the funky attitude of hip-hop. This is still Shipp’s ship, however. His thick, dark chords remain the music’s driving force; you can hear it in every bar. But the stop-start beats and the icy chill of the electronics are brought to the forefront. This is the kind of tune that gets people arguing about what jazz is. To which I say: Stop your yapping. Just enjoy it.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Matthew Shipp: Galaxy 105

Track

Galaxy 105

Artist

Matthew Shipp (piano, synthesizer)

CD

Harmony & Abyss (Thirsty Ear 57151)

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Musicians:

Matthew Shipp (piano, synthesizer), William Parker (bass), Gerald Cleaver (drums),

FLAM (synthesizers, programming)

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Composed by Matthew Shipp

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Recorded: Brooklyn, February 20-21, 2004

Albumcovermshippharmony_abyss

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

Now it all comes to a head, everything Shipp has been exploring since his first record: analytical approach, intricate composition, muscular performance, forward-looking ideas. Harmony & Abyss is almost a survey of his career, and yet within it are some surprising moments. Take “Galaxy 105,” a wonderful trio workout. No electronics, no FLAM, no slick production. Just three rhythm-makers working over a basic melodic idea. A few chords and a heck of a lot of ideas. Helps that these guys know one another like brothers at this point. They get into a groove and can’t get out. Lucky for the listener.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Matthew Shipp: Gamma Ray

Track

Gamma Ray

Artist

Matthew Shipp (piano)

CD

One (Thirsty Ear 57166)

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Musicians:

Matthew Shipp (piano).

Composed by Matthew Shipp

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Recorded: August 18, 2005

Albumcovermatthew_shipp_one

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Back to basics. Just when we were wondering what Shipp was going to shock us with next, he unleashed a solo piano recording. OK then, mission accomplished. With “Gamma Ray,” he throws it all our way: melodic structure, free improvisation, wrist-cramping power, beauty and mystery, strength and vulnerability. Shipp often plays in a circular fashion – ending up near the place where he began – but it is the twisting, turning ride that provides the joy. Like a great extemporaneous speaker, he works things out in your presence. You may not be quick enough to follow his thought process, but you can sure enjoy the trip to his destination.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Matthew Shipp: Quivering With Speed

Track

Quivering With Speed

Artist

Matthew Shipp (piano)

CD

Piano Vortex (Thirsty Ear 57180)

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Musicians:

Matthew Shipp (piano), Joe Morris (bass), Whit Dickey (drums).

Composed by Matthew Shipp

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Recorded: MPI Studios. New York, February 28, 2007

Albumcovermshipppianovortex

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

A welcome return to an old group. Nothing new here, just three well-acquainted guys going at it. All of the music of Piano Vortex is connected; it can all be traced to the extended title cut. “Quivering With Speed” has the musicians peeling off a piece and dissecting it to their hearts' content. Shipp massages contrasting and complementary passages out of the chord structure – check out his defiant “Giant Steps” quotation – while Morris walks maniacally up and down the bass and Dickey roils the drum kit. And then, as if to remind you that this is a Shipp record, the pianist gets out a bombastic few bars before settling back into the conversation. This is a joyously chaotic reunion.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Related Links

In Conversation with Matthew Shipp by Tom Greenland

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