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Matthew Shipp: The Multiplication Table

In view of the fact that he’s considered an avant gardist, Matthew Shipp’s been getting a great deal of publicity. His followers are alternative rock as well as jazz fans. In trying to explain Shipp’s appeal it should be kept in mind that labeling him an avant gardist is arguable. Compared to Cyrus Chestnut, he’s far out, but Chestnut’s a reactionary, not a mainstream jazzman, who emulates ’50s and ’60s post boppers, the mainstreamers of that time. On the other hand, Shipp hasn’t made any significant advances beyond Cecil Taylor’s ’60s work; what’s he’s doing isn’t as advanced as his fans believe. Shipp doesn’t imitate Cecil slavishly, but has been influenced by him and can be connected with a school of pianists including Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols, Andrew Hill, and Taylor, a school associated with dissonant, percussive, and orchestral playing. Like Taylor, he’s also been strongly marked by 20th century classical composers.

Shipp’s played pretty well on some CDs, but he’s very inconsistent, as this album indicates. He overindulges his fondness for pounding in the lower octaves, drowning out his fine trio members, bassist William Parker and drummer Susie Ibarra, who, ironically, he praises effusively in the notes. In all probability his banging in the bass register has gone a long way toward convincing listners, especally rock fans, that he’s quite modern, but often it’s tasteless.

The album contains the often heard “Autumn Leaves,” “C Jam Blues,” and “Take the A Train,” which Shipp attempts to rework in a fresh way, but all are marred by his heavy-handedness. There is one very nice track on the disc, “ZT 1,” during which Shipp, Parker, and Ibarra engage in spare, thoughtful collective improvisation. Shipp performs with control here, lets the performance breathe, and everyone’s better off for it.

Originally Published