Shipp Shape

Bet on it: Just about every Matthew Shipp album will spur someone to write that it is more accessible than its predecessors, an observation that says more about the observer than Shipp, who has never been all that inaccessible. His reputation for obscurity, as opposed to, say, obliquity, of which he is indeed a master, is somewhat patronizing, with its insinuated subtext: “We can appreciate his music, but it may be beyond your less-evolved sensibility.” Shipp’s music is too diverse and expansive to fit anyone’s pigeonhole, but for the most part it is decidedly listener-friendly.

Piano Vortex (Thirsty Ear), one of the outstanding discs of 2007, has proved particularly conducive to claims of mainstreaming, and I’m not sure why. For one thing, it’s less traditional than such previous group works as Pastoral Composure (2000) and Expansion, Power, Release (2001), or the gripping solo recitals, Songs (2002) and One (2006). Like most of Shipp’s music, it is entertaining and demanding in equal parts. If it gets a broader hearing than usual because it is reputed to be more conventional than usual, fine. But I fail to see the virtue in suggesting to those who fear or applaud Shipp’s avant-garde status that Piano Vortex is regressive or uncharacteristic, especially in light of his decision to open it with the longest and most challenging track.

Piano Vortex is significant on a few counts. It reunites Shipp with two longstanding collaborators: drummer Whit Dickey, who worked with him for much of the 1990s, in and out of the David S. Ware Quartet; and guitarist Joe Morris, who has partnered with Shipp on and off for a quarter-century—only this time, he plays bass, not guitar, and with unexpectedly impressive authority. It is Shipp’s first recording since Ware’s Renunciation (Aum Fidelity), a candidate for the best CD of 2007, which signaled the quartet’s dispersal, at least as far as American concerts go. The rave-up enthusiasm this superb group invariably triggered in live performances never transferred into record sales, which may be why the label included several minutes of applause, a sentimental but understandable gesture.

Renunciation, recorded in New York at the 2006 Vision Festival, captures the quartet (tenor saxophonist Ware, Shipp, bassist William Parker, drummer Guillermo E. Brown) with flags flying: the “godspellized” sublimity of “Ganesh Sound,” the strenuous exchanges between Ware and band on the title suite (including one cadenza that whirls briefly into “Bags’ Groove” before rising into a series of the purest spectral saxophone hollers on record), and an emphatic reprise of “Mikuro’s Blues.” This is rousing stuff, and in the wake of its receding overtones, Shipp’s Piano Vortex may sound relatively quiet, settled and understated, but its power is deep and circuitous, the eight tracks held together almost suite-like by apparent pairings, conceptual echoes and pounding rhythmic figures that take off like Möbius strips.

The title track begins almost gingerly, a meditative checking out of the terrain in which each dissonance is nicely italicized. There is a feeling of intuition reminiscent of Paul Bley—spare, lyrical and observant, as melodic fragments and harmonies unfold in a stream of remembered bits, shadowed by Morris’ alert bass, all of it coming together and coagulating midway. “Piano Vortex” is a piece that needs to be returned to after the rest of the album has been absorbed, as if it were a round. In sharp contrast, “Key Swing” is short, repetitive and rhythmic, with little in the way of improvisational variation; its recurring eight-bar piano figures recall pieces by Herbie Nichols in their tricky hops and minor mood.

“The New Circumstance” sets out in another direction, introduced by bowed bass and drums, and emerging as a rubato cluster of chords that in turns leads to a simple melody with an Eastern accent, which builds in rhythmic intensity until it emerges in a brief headlong groove (plucked bass, pattering snare drums) that opens up to bass and drums solos, until Shipp wraps it up so that the other guys can take it out. In other words, you cannot predict where the hell this thing is going, though it never slumps in getting there. Again, in sharp contrast, the shorter “Nooks and Corners” is all forward momentum. The theme is a witty and engaging riff, naggingly repeated, complete with some Morse code plinking and riotous swing: great fun—the kind of thing Jaki Byard would have dug.

And then the disc attains a deeper level with two masterly performances that show how really resourceful this trio can be. “Sliding Through Space” opens with a disarmingly lyrical melody, but the axis of interest ricochets from one corner of the triangle to another while stacking cumulative timbres. Morris’ bowing makes pitches sound as if they were played backwards, and slips through piano chords as Alan Silva once did with Cecil Taylor. Shipp pummels a characteristic rhythm, pedal pressed to the floor for maximum thunder. Yet overall, the drama is held in reserve, waxing and waning and waxing and finally waning into lyricism. “Quivering With Speed” is possibly the most Taylor-inspired piece; firmly grounded by Dickey’s drums, it is rigorously controlled, as Shipp reasserts pedaled dynamics (he really likes these chords), rolls vivaciously through the treble keys, and cuts out on a surefire vamp.

The final two pieces indicate yet another pairing. “Slips Through the Fingers” is an unaccompanied piano solo that uses a technique associated with Thelonious Monk: playing plush chords and then raising all the fingers but one. This is Shipp in a romantic, classical mode, though just when you think he is meditating on the 19th century, he mixes up the rhythm and fills out the body of sound with left-hand forays. The piece is short (little more than three minutes) and the abrupt ending is the album’s one disappointment; every time I play it, I play it twice. “To Vitalize,” the closer, does what it promises, demonstrating especially impressive digital command as Shipp sustains the rhythm established by a strict bass walk, improvising eight-bar phrases that are as conspicuously lacking in reiteration as some of the previous pieces partake of it.

After “To Vitalize,” go back to “Piano Vortex” and notice how relaxing it is, how sensible, even logical, it now seems. Vortex-like, this album sucks you in and keeps you spinning.

Originally published in March 2008

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