Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Matthew Shipp, artwork by Suzanne Cerny
Pianist and composer Matthew Shipp has refused to be pigeonholed. Freely combining inspirations from electronica, pop and the avant-garde, Shipp's open-minded approach to music has earned him a diverse and growing following well beyond the borders of jazz.
In his work with David S. Ware, Roscoe Mitchell and as a leader since the 1990s, Shipp has combined avant-garde jazz, classical and electronic music to form a highly original sound. Like all jazz pioneers, he has used finely tuned instincts to explore the furthermost corners of the music's language. His work evokes the longing of an original musical purpose, rather than what has already been done.
Matthew Shipp was born on December 7, 1960 in Wilmington, Delaware. Shipp’s parents were jazz enthusiasts and avid music fans, who filled their home with the music of Dave Brubeck, Count Basie and Miles Davis, shaping Matthew's early love for jazz. Shipp's mother, a nurse, had also been friends with another Wilmington native, trumpeter Clifford Brown, who died in a car accident in 1956.
Shipp began playing the piano at the age of five, with church organists as his first inspiration. Shipp has said that he found jazz to be his calling after seeing pianist Ahmad Jamal perform on public television. Shortly after that, Shipp saw a performance of Nina Simone on television, which further heightened his interest in music.
As a child, Shipp studied classical music and listening to popular music of the era, such as Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five and Earth, Wind, & Fire. Shipp gained performing experience by playing the Fender Rhodes electric piano in rock bands.
Shipp began studying music theory and improvisation under Robert “Boisey” Lawrey, who had been a teacher of Clifford Brown. In middle school, Shipp studied classical piano as well as the bass clarinet.
At the age of thirteen, Shipp began listening to tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. Shipp enjoyed Coltrane's energy and how his approach to music transcended the conventions of jazz. Coltrane became a strong influence, and Shipp later followed his example of transcending categories in his own musical career.
After high school, Shipp enrolled at the University of Delaware, following his family's wishes. However, he left the university after a year and began taking lessons with guitarist Dennis Sandole, who had also taught Coltrane.
Shipp eventually made his way to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory of Music where he studied with composer and saxophonist Joe Maneri, and pianist Ran Blake. After two years at the NEC, Shipp left to make his way to New York.
Shipp moved to New York City in 1984, where he established the group Convection. The group has included bassist William Parker, cellists Abdul Wadud and Akua Dixon Turre, and drummers Dennis Charles and Steve McCall. Shipp and Parker established a close collaboration, which endured since this group.
Shipp made his recording debut for Cadence Jazz with the album Sonic Explorations. Recorded in November 1987 and February 1988, the album with alto saxophonist Rob Brown features free-form tracks as well as revisited jazz standards such as"Oleo” and “Blue In Green,” both made famous by Miles Davis
In 1990, Shipp and Parker both joined the David S. Ware Quartet. Shipp’s first sessions with Ware yielded the albums Great Bliss Vol, 1 and Great Bliss Vol. 2. In 1994, Shipp appeared on Ware’s DIW album Earthquation. On the track “Tenderly,” Shipp adds embellishments to the free-sounding form while still maintaining a concrete musical trajectory. Shipp’s comping also allows Ware to explore while still upholding the song’s harmonic underpinning.
In 1992, Shipp began to record and perform with saxophonist and AACM member Roscoe Mitchell and his ensemble “The Note Factory.” In 1994, Shipp collaborated with Parker in a duo format on the album Zo, which featured a three-part suite of the same name. Shipp returned to the duo format in 1996, when he recorded 2-Z with Mitchell. In 1998, Shipp recorded the album Gravitational Systems with violinist Mat Maneri.
By 1996, Shipp was making records for HatOLOGY, an imprint of Switzerland's Hat Hut label. These albums, such as By The Law of Music in 1996 and 1997's The Multiplication Table, which includes his deconstruction of Joseph Kosma's classic "Autumn Leaves," demonstrate the brilliance and intellect Shipp has brought to his music.
In 1997, Shipp recorded again with Ware for Columbia on Go See The World, with the now-familiar lineup of Parker on bass and Susie Ibarra on drums. On tracks such as "The Way We Were," the band offers just a hint of melody somewhere in the midst of a 15-minute firestorm.
By the late 1990s, Shipp’s work as both a sideman and as a leader was finding fans outside of the jazz world. An example of this came in 1999, when Shipp and the Ware Quartet opened up for the popular noise-rock band Sonic Youth in New York City.
Since 2000, Shipp has been the artistic director of Thirsty Ear Records’ “Blue Series.” According to its producers, the goal of this series is to combine the many dialects of jazz into one unifying language through a natural development. The series has included Shipp, Parker and Ware in multiple combinations, as well as hip-hop artists DJ Spooky and El-P, and frequently features the use of electronic instruments in ways hitherto unheard in jazz.
Shipp’s first record for Thirsty Ear was DNA in 1999. Shipp’s first release under the “Blue Series” banner was 2000’s Pastoral Composure, On "Gesture" from this album, Shipp exhibits a dramatic, almost stark tone that sets up the chilling atmosphere of the performance. Shipp is complemented by trumpeter Roy Campbell, whose tone is reminiscent of Miles Davis’s score for the 1958 movie Elevator To The Gallows.
In 2002, Shipp released Nu Bop, a kind of sound manifesto about the use of electronics in jazz, with loops and other digital effects programmed by FLAM. The following year, Shipp released Equilibrium, which featured once again featured FLAM and Parker, along with drummer Gerald Cleaver, and Khan Jamal on vibraphone. The album is an excellent example of the combination some call "jazztronica:" electronics never overwhelm the acoustic elements, and on"“Cohesion,” Shipp benefits from Parker’s funky bass line, which allows him the freedom to add more groove-oriented passages
In 2006, Shipp released his fourth solo piano album, One, which explores the role of this solo instrument in modern jazz on tracks such as "Gamma Ray." 2004's Harmonic Abyss finds Shipp playing both piano and synthesizers, again in collaboration with FLAM.
In 2007, he released Piano Vortex, and Harmonic Disorder is slated for release in early 1999. Shipp lives in New York with his wife of eighteen years, singer Delia Scalfe.
Discography As Matthew Shipp
As Matthew Shipp
Critical Mass (1994)
By The Law Of Music (1996)
The Multiplication Table (1998)
Pastoral Composure (2000)
Nu Bop (2002)
Harmony And Abyss (2004)
Piano Vortex (2007)
Harmonic Disorder (2009)
With Rob Brown
Sonic Explorations (1988)
With Mat Maneri
Gravitational Systems (1998)
With Roscoe Mitchell
This Dance Is For Steve McCall (1992)
Nine To Get Ready (1999)
With William Parker
With David S. Ware
Great Bliss Vol. 1 (1990)
Great Bliss Vol. 2 (1990)
Wisdom Of Uncertainty (1997)
Go See The World (1998)
Corridors And Parallels (2001)
Contributor: Eric Wendell