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Matthew Shipp: Equilibrium

illustration of Matthew Shipp

Equilibrium is the latest installment in a career full of musical incident and event, and pianist Matthew Shipp has once again succeeded in confounding expectation by challenging established convention. The CD is Shipp’s fourth for Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, a label that has quickly established a reputation as the most adventurous in American jazz.

Unlike the fixed stars and known horizons of much of the jazz firmament, Shipp is less interested in what jazz was than what it can become. Standing apart from the mainstream while at the same time asking searching questions of it, at 42 Shipp is not about to let middle-age lassitude compromise the values he forged as a young man when he first arrived in New York City in 1984 after studying for two years at the New England Conservatory. Joining tenor saxophonist David S. Ware’s quartet in 1989, Shipp and the band confronted the problem of extending the avant-garde’s creative impulses without surrendering to the pitfalls of excess. With Ware, Shipp found an audience beyond jazz, where alternative rockers, open to new sounds and new ideas, embraced the music without the preconceived notions of conservative jazz fans. Shipp is by no means hard to listen to, but many found him difficult listening, making lazy connections with Cecil Taylor, once a prime influence but now a distant one at best.

After recording more than 20 albums under his own name, and 50-some as a sideman, Shipp announced a sabbatical from recordings in 1999, saying his basic body of work was complete and his playing was already well enough documented. What appeared as a noble if futile gesture was never fully realized because, as he told Kenny Mathieson in Jazzwise, “I’ve got rent to pay.” So Shipp took on the role of producer and artistic director for Thirsty Ear’s new jazz imprint. The Blue Series, somewhat inspired by the early ECM label, opened in 2000 with Shipp’s own Pastoral Composure, which was subdued yet probing, followed by 2001’s New Orbit, which was dreamlike, ambient and, at times, minimalistic.

But it was 2002’s Nu Bop that put the cat among the pigeons. Here the rhythmic climate was unequivocal, mixing acoustic drums with programmed beats and sampled sounds. It was a bold vision of jazz in the computer age, one that acknowledged, like the best music, the current times. While Nu Bop was not a completely rounded statement, there was enough to make much of the current scene sound as if its musical clock had stopped 40 years ago. Equilibrium is a logical continuum to Shipp’s Nu Bop concept, this time with a more subtle application of beats. While it may not manifest as many epiphanies as its predecessor, Equilibrium does convey conviction. On several tracks Shipp succeeds in reconfiguring the relationship between piano, bass and drums by giving a leading role to Gerald Cleaver’s drums and shaping the compositions around rhythm. Joining Shipp on Equilibrium is longtime associate William Parker on bass, Khan Jamal on vibes and Chris Flam (who has worked with DJ Spooky and A Guy Called Gerald) on synths and programming.

Equilibrium’s title-track opener features the formalism of a soliloquy before launching into more equivocal territory. “Vamp to Vibe” explores the twin effect of cohesion (piano vamp and drum backbeat) and independence (Jamal’s free-ish vibe solo) that relies on the hypnotic effect of rhythm for its effect. The intersecting geometries of bowed bass, piano and vibes are measured in a hushed ambient and minimalistic mood on “Nebula Theory,” which emerges as more alchemy than math. And although more reflective pieces like “World of Blue Ghost” and “Nu-Matrix” and the straightahead “The Key” explore and sometimes dislocate melody and mood, it is numbers such as “Vamp to Vibe,” the swaggering “Cohesion,” the funky “The Root” and the brief vision of a vamp-waltz on “Portal” where Shipp succeeds in making rhythm rather than harmony the basic organizing structure of the music. These pieces are less about Matthew Shipp as pianist than Matthew Ship as bandleader and conceptualist.

Part of a work in progress, Equilibrium moves beyond the so-called “jazz tradition” to the real jazz tradition, where imagination has free reign and ideas evolve and develop their own momentum, inspired by the present and future as much (or more) than by the past. With Equilibrium, and Antipop Consortium vs. Matthew Shipp, a collaboration between the underground hip-hop group and the pianist scheduled for release in February, the tirelessly productive Shipp is continuing to pave roads to an inclusive vision of jazz’s future.

Originally Published