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.