In conversation with matthew shipp
by Tom Greenland
Ever since his precocious beginnings in Wilmington, Delaware where he was inspired by local mentors, to his arrival in New York in the mid-80s, and throughout his extensive recording and performing career, Matthew Shipp has been a man to watch, a voice to listen to—an artist on the move. During a recent conversation in an East Village coffee shop close to his apartment, the outspoken pianist discussed his musical background, teachers, and artistic influences; how he discovered and developed his sound; the nature of creativity and its limits; and his relationships with fans and members of the jazz community.
Matthew Shipp, artwork by Suzanne Cerny
Hello. What do you want to talk about?
Everything? [laughs] Okay. Go ahead, tell me some stuff.
Okay, well, I mean, it’s 2008 right now and I’m in an interesting part of my career, meaning that I’ve done a lot in the past. I have a pretty long career by certain standards. I’ve been recording regularly since the early 90s and I’m at a point of assessing who I am, where I want to go to — if I want to go anywhere — and what the general environment that I’m operating in is. . . . So the whole thing is always process oriented, it’s always dealing with the language, who you are, and what it is. So any questions you have breaking any of that down makes it easier for me to talk.
Well, you said you’ve been in New York twenty-four years now?
Where do you come from originally?
I’m from Wilmington, Delaware. I moved to New York in ’84. Prior to that, I had lived in Boston for a year because I attended New England Conservatory. Coming from Wilmington to Boston before you come to New York is a usual trajectory for a lot of musicians, going from their hometown to Boston and then New York. And basically, I didn’t want to go to school; I wanted to jump right in to the professional music world that New York had to offer. But yeah, I moved here in ’84.
What kind of background did you have musically? Did you start with classical piano, like Chopin?
Yeah, I started playing piano at the age of five, mainly inspired by a church organist in my parent’s church, which was Episcopalian—it wasn’t a gospel church, it was Episcopalian. And I started classical lessons and I became interested in jazz around the age of twelve. And my mother was friends with Clifford Brown when she was in high school. He was from Wilmington, Delaware. My parents weren’t actively into music, but they had a record collection around; you know, stuff like [Thelonious] Monk, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington—a lot of stuff: Jonah Jones, Ahmad Jamal; they had a whole vast array of LPs, and also a lot of pop piano LPs of people like Roger Williams, Liberace, or Don Shirley. They had a lot of stuff like that around the house, so I was ransacking their record collection and just checking everything out.
And you first got into jazz when you were twelve? Anything particular spark your…?
Yeah, I heard Ahmad Jamal on TV, then I heard Nina Simone on TV, and both of them rocked my world completely.
Really? What was it about the…?
Nina Simone? It was just this dark, dark ambiance she had that really attracted me. I was into horror films also, so it was almost like the musical equivalent of the horror films. I was really into it, and there was just something so dark but yet so resonant about her, and I really just enjoyed her touch on the piano, ’cause there was something about her. I didn’t, like, put this into words in my head, but when I do an archeology of what actually went through my mind, I think what fascinated me about it was when she played, it was just Nina Simone music. And I could tell that she had classical training, I could tell that she knew the blues, I could tell that she had an understanding of folk music because she covered some Bob Dylan songs or whatever. But whatever she played, it became her idiom; it was like—bam!—it was Nina Simone music, and it was almost like she transcended idioms and was just this strong personality in and of herself. So, without knowing that was what attracted me to it, I think that was what really drew me into her world, plus the actual physics of it, like the darkness of it.
And I was also really into Stevie Wonder, who has that same thing about him—not the darkness, ’cause his music is completely not dark—but he could cover anything and it instantly becomes the Stevie Wonder idiom. Because Stevie Wonder, like Nina Simone, had covered “Blowing in the Wind,” when he was younger, on an album. So he had covered a Bob Dylan song, or he could do anything, but it just became Stevie Wonder music.
With Ahmad Jamal, I think it was just some elegance that he had. It was something so spiritual. . . . It was an elegance and a spirituality that he reached. And, you know, his music is very black, but it’s never screaming on black. It just is elegant, and it’s just what it is. And I think that’s what hit me about Ahmad Jamal.
So I became fascinated with wanting to be a jazz musician. I think the first album I really, really started dissecting was a solo Phineas Newborn, Jr. album, and the only reason I started dissecting that was because I got it for free. My mother brought a Down Beat home for me when it was obvious that I was really into jazz. She was a nurse. She just passed away recently.
Oh, I’m sorry.
She was a nurse, and there were some Down Beats in the hospital sitting around so she brought them home; and I subscribed to it, and at the time you got a free record, so I got this Phineas Newborn solo album. So that was just like the first cool jazz piano album I sat down and really tried to dissect. I initially transcribed a couple solos from a Count Basie album that my parents had -- because it was very sparse and very easy to figure out. But as far as really sitting down with a dense piano album, this Phineas Newborn, Jr. album was the first one.
And then I started buying stuff: you know, whatever. I remember watching PBS and Andre Previn was with Oscar Peterson, so I went out and got a bunch of Oscar Peterson albums. And then from there I somehow got into Bill Evans; and then I discovered [John] Coltrane, so it was McCoy Tyner. And then the whole universe opened and I discovered everybody.
So you’re mostly self-taught then?
There’s an old Cecil Taylor quote that, “In jazz, every jazz pianist of worth is his own university,” so I think, basically, everybody’s self-taught. I mean, if you reach your own style you have to go deep into yourself and discover who you are, but in the meantime, you know, you go around to everybody and ask questions. Where I lived, in Wilmington, Delaware, was a guy, Dean Jenkins; and there was a guy named Daahoud, who Clifford Brown wrote the song “Daahoud” about, who was this old alcoholic who still played. I used to knock at these people’s doors and just go in and start asking questions. I used to hang out at a music store all day and people would come in; they would try out pianos—I was friends with the owner of the store—and a guy would sit down and start playing. I’d go over, just watch his hands, and then ask him questions.
I was just a kid, but I’d meet a lot of friends that way and people would sometimes teach you everything they knew. This one guy might come in and all he knew was two Elton John songs; another guy could come in, and he could play like Oscar Peterson, or whatever; and another guy came in and he might know some Chick Corea, you know what I mean? But you were just asking questions and people would show you stuff, so you’d learn a lot through osmosis. And I had a very active imagination, so I could take just a kernel of something that I’d learnt from somebody and make it into a whole thing, kind of like a mathematician: if you could show him the arc, he could figure out the whole figure, you know? So if somebody just showed me a little something, I could create exercises out of it -- and maybe, myself, figure out a whole universe from that. So, yes, I was self-taught as a jazz musician, but I was also very inquisitive and learned a lot from a lot of people. Then later I actually had two jazz teachers. One was a guy named Robert Lowery, who was Clifford Brown’s teacher, ’cause Clifford Brown was from my hometown, and then Dennis Sandole, who taught in Philly, which is twenty minutes away from Wilmington, Delaware; and Dennis Sandole had been Coltrane’s teacher.
When you got that Phineas Newborn album…?
I don’t remember the name of it; it was this solo album.
…did you try to emulate the solos exactly, or his voicings?
No, um, some of it.
…or was it more like you said: you get an idea and you…?
I got ideas and I ran with it. I actually learned a few of the solos that he played and I would kind of learn how he played his songs, but I wouldn’t copy his solos.
How about for the left hand voicings? Did you have any trouble figuring out what notes were in them? In transcribing, that’s the primary difficulty: the inner voices.
Yes, that’s very difficult. Yeah, I kind of just got the chord progressions and the melodies, and then I knew if he was playing closed harmonies or open harmonies, but I never tried to meticulously figure out every note of the chord and get it right; I would just get enough of it, where I got the quality of it, and then went on my own from there. I was doing that also with—I can’t remember that one McCoy Tyner solo album he did where he does “Naima” and “My Favorite Things” on it… Echoes of a Friend. I used to listen to that for hours and hours. I would sit, like, almost in meditation and listen to that for hours and hours at a time, and kind of carry in my head—and go to the piano and figure out things; and I would never, like, run back and make sure I got it exactly right, but I would get the essence of things, and then if I got a few measures or something, that would be enough, where I would automatically learn a bunch of other stuff by osmosis or go with it myself.
I never wanted to become, like, an expert transcriber or something—I mean, that’s something for a musicologist or people writing method books—but as a player I wanted to learn enough just to get a flavor of stuff, and to kind of figure out what they were doing, and then by doing that I instantly just fill in the blanks with a lot of things. I did that with some Lennie Tristano stuff too. But I was always trying to . . . learn the basics of what these people are doing just to know where they’re coming from. But I always knew that I had my own thing I was pushing at. I was just doing this, biding time until I really bumped into myself. And that’s a very bizarre concept: that you have to do a lot of stuff to bump into yourself, ’cause presumably [laughing] yourself is there! I mean, it’s closer than any thing. But I guess that that’s just the business of how things work in this way of living.
Yeah, I guess it’s just giving you different choices, and then you sort of resonate with certain ones and they stay in your vocabulary.
Yeah, exactly, and that’s the proper way to put it, because anything that resonates with your mind is there because it ranks with you for some reason. I mean, it’s close to your personality or there’s something about it that is about you.
Can you talk about your language? Maybe some specifics, if possible, like some musical stuff: What do you do? or How do you approach music?
Right, right. Well, I don’t know what I do. My style fell together on September the 15th of 1984—I think that was the day. It was around that time—the 13th or the 14th. We were having a jam session with this duo, with this sax player. We were playing—all of a sudden, I was, like, “What did we just do?” when we listened back to the tape. Whereas before that I was kind of playing quasi-McCoy Tyner / Herbie Hancock / Bill Evans-ly, with a little dash of Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor. This whole new way of approaching space-time seemed so . . . . That year at New England Conservatory a teacher of mine—Hank Netsky was one of my teachers there—actually made me transcribe a whole solo of mine, and I just didn’t want to do it. I mean, I don’t want to know what I’m able to do—I just want to go with it. And, you know, it was kind of interesting to actually write down some of what I did and to see it. My style is kind of open-ended at the top, meaning that it can absorb a lot of things, break it down, and then reemerge as somehow me, even if I’m obviously hinting at something else. I want to leave it up to other people to actually say what I do. I know what distinguishes me from other pianists in my idiom, but I don’t really want to…
Well, I’m curious about your approach: do you have any/certain ideas that are strong ideas for you when you go to improvise or you go to compose? I’m looking for shop stuff. It’s interesting—I think—for people to read about the details of how someone’s process works. I know some of its intuitive and some of it’s just in you and you don’t think about it…
Yeah, right, right; that’s ninety-nine percent.
Ok, but if there are some elements that you’re conscious of, it might help people to understand you a lot better—I think. I know, that’s a hard question, but if you have anything…
Yeah. First of all, I would say that even though what I do is very intuitive, completely intuitive—and I’ve been told that by my teachers over the years, who are, like, “Wow, you’ve got this own thing!”, and this was even before it flowered. People, a lot of my teachers, could tell that I had a specific thing in mind and they were, like, “We don’t want to get in the way; we’re here to offer help and to maybe show you some things, but you’ve got this own, like, flower of yours and it’s going to burst forth at some point in your life.” And Sandole, Coltrane’s teacher, told me that; Clifford Brown’s teacher; a lot of people.
But, if I could say, I think implicit in the fact that it’s really intuitive, there is an understanding of the sweep of jazz piano history. And I think I am me, but I can absorb a lot of influences; and something goes on beneath the surface and they surface. But at any particular point in my playing, like maybe a record this year and a record from two years later, you can say, “Oh, at this point elements of, maybe, McCoy Tyner, or this or that, were more prominent, and two years later elements of something else,” even though if you listen to it, it doesn’t sound anything like them. So I guess what I’m saying is there’s kind of a quest for understanding the universality of the jazz piano continuum. And you hear that even though it never sounds like any of those things.
I think, drama-wise and harmonically-wise, and also maybe syntax-wise, Duke Ellington is a big thing there. Because he had a very colorful pianistic personality; there was a lot of drama in his choices of how he hit clusters, what notes he chose, what colors he chose, and even in putting together—the syntax of the music—there was always a colorful attempt at telling a certain type of story. And I think he’s a huge influence on me, even though none of my music sounds like him. And I think that’s there. I think the Monk iconoclasm, the iconoclastic mode of playing, is there; and I do certain things that might sound like I’m fooling around with certain aspects of Monk’s language, but I never really go deep with it. I mean, there’re certain people that go deep into that, but I think, implicit in the fact that I’m intuitive and I’m me, that the understanding of the jazz piano tradition is there. So, I think that’s—without getting into technical things—what I do, because I do a lot of different things and it’s hard to say. I mean, they’re all different.
Right, right. Well let me give you a specific example. I was talking to Harold Meiselman, a guy that comes out to a lot of shows. He was listening to a Horace Tapscott album, and he said, “Do you know what? I hear a lot of Horace in Matt Shipp’s playing”; and he said he asked you about that, and you said, “Well yeah, I am aware of that music; I won’t say that the influence isn’t there.” So, for example, that’s one person who heard you and heard some Horace Tapscott, and heard a connection between you.
Right. That’s interesting because I first heard him when I was around fifteen or sixteen, I think, and I remember checking out a couple of albums and really liking them; and I remember, around that time, I was at a jam session with some people, musicians in Wilmington, Delaware, playing “A Night in Tunisia” . . . and saying, “I want to play this for Horace Tapscott someday.” [laughs] I mean, he was never somebody that I sat down and listened to. But I think there’s a definite connection between somebody like Horace, who is a searching, open pianist, but never wants to be, like, avant-garde in the sense that, like, Cecil Taylor is avant-garde, and also, probably, the group of influences . . . I never met Horace and never talked to him — I mean, he’s not influenced by Monk; Horace Tapscott is his own guy — but the figure of Monk influenced the psyche of a lot of people in 60s music and on past that in the 70s and 80s. Which kind of opens up an interesting thing, ’cause I don’t think Monk was ever really that excited about the avant-garde. I think once he was played something by Ornette Coleman and I think he didn’t like [it], you know? So, I mean, the figure of Monk actually opened up a lot of things in people’s psyche and people could react to it and it opened up a lot of different reactions . . . . So anyway, Horace Tapscott is this iconoclastic figure on the West Coast, which makes him a little different than the East Coast musicians anyway ’cause there’s a whole different feel and a vibe out there, but he’s kind of working in a very interesting way. I mean, I guess the closest figure to Horace Tapscott is Sun Ra, ’cause they both had communal big bands where they fostered a lot of musicians, they both had access to the whole continuum of the music but had an open-ended, freer jazz approach to it. And Sun Ra was a big influence on me, so I guess Horace Tapscott, spiritually, being kind of the West Coast embodiment of that spirit, was also there too. And yes, I did check him out, I was aware of him, I loved him, but I never sat down and tried to figure out, like, what was he doing, blah-blah-blah, but I was very aware of him, yes. And he’s one of the things that went into the subconscious that influenced who I would later be.
Yeah. Maybe you’re the wrong person to ask; maybe I should ask everybody else but you, you know what I’m saying? [Laughs] Because it’s something so intuitive. Like, my wife’s going to know more about my mannerisms than I will.
It’s an interesting dilemma, you know? You sit down with someone and ask them, “What do you do?” “I don’t know what I do!” you know? You should just say, “Ask my wife. She’ll tell you what I do!” or, “Ask my fans.”
I wanted to follow up that idea about Monk. You said he’s an iconoclast…
…meaning a radical, or a new-traditionalist, or—I don’t know how you would say it—but you were saying he wasn’t necessarily avant-garde…
…but then there’s this idea of the avant-garde, which suggest, maybe, getting away from structure in tunes, or whatever that means. How do you see that role? For example, you might be considered a “downtown” pianist.
I’m considered—I’m considered a lot of things! [laughs]
I don’t want to try to put a category on it, but what I’m saying is: how do you see your role in…?
I’m just about me. And I don’t mean that I have a personality. I put music on discs that people call “CDs” and it’s about the flowering of, like, whoever I am, and whoever “I” am, those are the notes that that person would play. And that’s where it begins, that’s where it ends, and there’s no reason for the existence of what I do; it just is what it is. You know, there’s no need to put it in a specific bag: I happen to live in the Lower East Side and you can call me a “downtown” musician…
Actually, I’m not asking about the labeling so much as, more, the perceived freedom, or…
Right. Well, there is no freedom. I mean, there’re limitations to a human being physically. First of all, I play a piano; there’re certain limitations to playing any instrument. And then on top of that, even though the mind is an energy field that is essentially infinite—and it is—we as humans can’t flower into our infiniteness; while we’re here, we’re kind of bound by a lot of things, and a lot of them are the preconceptions that our society has, that the jazz industry has, and even—as crazy as it is—the preconceptions that the avant-garde community has.
Definitely; they have just as much as anybody else, maybe more.
Probably more finite, more finite, yeah. [Laughs] So all of that bounds me in my perceived freedom of sorts, and I’m fighting just to be able to be me, and to have the right to be me, and to have the right to make a living at being me. And, you know, all these things are infringing upon me, so I don’t know about what freedoms I have. And there are moments of pure freedom, but there are moments when eternity breaks into the finite—even though, obviously, the finite is bound to the infinite—that we really are kind of stuck here while we’re here. And there’re a lot of factors that both influence us and infringe upon us while we’re here, so whenever I think I might be, um, free at this moment, I’m just as bound as anybody else. And I’m not smart enough to separate when I’m truly me, when I’m truly free, when I truly burst away from all of this. I’m just here trying to do the best I can, and trying to completely be me and away from everything, but as a human being I want to fit in and be accepted also, and make money at what I’m doing, so I can’t separate—I don’t know, I’m just really trying to be me, hoping I can break free from a lot of these constraints.
You made an interesting allusion that, maybe, in some ways the avant-garde community could be more restrictive than a mainstream environment—you know, whatever those labels mean. Can you give me an example of a situation that’s supposedly open-ended and yet there’re unspoken conventions, when there are imposed expectations?
Right, right. Well, I think in every way. I mean, there’re people that, once you do an album a certain way, that’s their conception of you, and once you step outside of that they’re offended and they wanted you to repeat that pattern of being over and over and over again.
Have people ever said that to you, or…?
Well, they’ll never say it that way, but…
Well, how have you gotten feedback about that before? I’m wondering.
Well, I think that anybody who does a whole series of albums experiences that, where people accept a certain type of album from you and you do something else—that there are certain people who would give you the freedom to do that and there’re others that claim that you’re a traitor to the cause or—I mean, they won’t put it in that language.
Right, right; but you’ll get the feeling?
You’ll get the feeling they’re wondering why are you going this direction. And why should you be bound to anything? I mean, if the avant-garde is truly free, then I’m free to play a folk song with triads and not to improvise at all! [Laughs] — if it’s truly freedom.
What kind of feedback do you get from your fans or people that go to shows? Do they talk to you about your music?
If I happen to bump into them on the streets sometimes. I really move past—quickly move past—any performance or CD. When you first start out in this, you want a lot of feedback, because you’re wondering if you’re worthy of being a professional and making albums and getting good reviews. At first part of you is wondering: is it your imagination? So once you get enough feedback, I know I’m worthy of being here. So at this point I don’t really care what people think about anything, and even if something’s a complete failure, so what? [Laughs] I move past it, past to the next thing. And so I don’t really care about feedback, but I…
I’m just curious what they tell you. What sort of relations do you have with these people?
Well, the other thing is I sit around at night surfing the internet and I look at what people say on blogs a lot of times, especially on blogs where people don’t sign their names; people, you know, will say anything! [Llaughs] I see what people say about a lot of things and, like I said, I don’t really take into consideration what anybody says about anything, positive or negative. At this point, I do it and I move on to the next thing, because I know that I have a place in the music and I know that my work is going to be taken seriously by some community of people. There’re people that have disagreed with every course of action taken in human history. I mean, the only thing that’s ubiquitous out here is skepticism!
Right. So I don’t really concern myself with that; I just do something and then move on.
Right. Um, but the other part of the question is just what motivates you; I’m curious about your relationships with fans: how aware you are of someone out there?
Very aware. [Laughs]
Do you have personal contacts with people? Or is it like you’re the artist over here, and “Here’s my work; you like it or you don’t”? Or are you in dialogue with your fan base?
Right, that’s the major way I position myself: “I’m the artist, this is the work, the work is of my nature, you either like it or you don’t.” Some people like roses, some people like other types of plants—tulips. If you like the rose, whatever.
What about active fan/artists like Steve Dalachinsky? Surely people like that are part of your…?
Yeah, yeah, right. Well, I mean, I have people that are friends, that come to gigs and they offer their opinions; and I sometimes just shut my ears, sometimes I listen, sometimes I just stop and I go, “I don’t really care that you thought it worked or that it didn’t work.” If it’s a work-in-progress that I just started, and I’m going to keep working on this thing, then I do listen because I want all feedback, in case some of it rings true to me and I might have to make some changes to something; and I take in everybody’s opinion on that.
I’ve had really close personal friendships with a lot of critics, and I’ve had critics call me at my house—as friends, not as critics. And they start, like, trying to tell me what I should do for a next project; and that’s a really dangerous. It’s one thing if they want to say, like, “I was at this gig; I didn’t think this worked.” I mean, if they’re offering that as friends, that’s that. But when—and I’ve had a lot of close relationships with a lot of critics—when they start really, really getting into it, and almost insinuating that you should drop this project, or “You shouldn’t do that for your next album.” And I had one instance where somebody who was a very close friend of mine, a noted critic, was calling me three to four times a day, and almost like he was going over the line of being a critic to becoming my manager; and there was a series of albums that I was going to do that he was adamantly against, like, “Don’t do that!” and it got to a point where I started slamming the phone down when he called. And that [laughs] got to be really interesting, you know?
Wow, that is interesting.
The Dozens: Twelve Essential Matthew Shipp Tracks by Steve Greenlee