Matthew Shipp and Simplicity Itself

The pianist may have just made his greatest album. Still, he’s talking about retirement (again).

Matthew Shipp
Matthew Shipp. (photo by: R.I. Sutherland-Cohen)

When describing the career arc of pianist Matthew Shipp, “prolific” is the definitive understatement. Now pushing 60, this longtime downtown New York City force has a staggering oeuvre as leader, co-leader, and collaborator. Yet his mission—to reinvent jazz piano—has remained constant. You can hear that on Signature, Shipp’s debut recording for the legendary ESP-Disk’ with his trio of bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, following a pair of 2018 sets in other formats for the label (the quartet date Sonic Fiction and the solo Zero). Both freewheeling and scientific as it runs the stylistic gamut from traditional jazz to bebop to the avant-garde, this creatively dizzying masterwork makes clear that Shipp’s playing and composing stays within only one consistent genre: his own.

For this interview, conducted in Shipp’s Manhattan apartment, the pianist discussed his evolution as a player, the changing face of New York, his wish to keep things simple (yes, really), and a subject he’s broached more than once before—the possible end of his recording career.

JT: Your last record with your trio, Piano Song, came out in 2016 on Thirsty Ear, your final effort for that label after a long tenure. Signature is your trio debut for ESP-Disk’. Do you think of this as a new beginning?

MATTHEW SHIPP: Not really. I love recording for ESP, with the historical weight that they have behind them. But as far as the trio goes, this is the third recording: Conduct of JazzPiano Song, and this. So rather than a new beginning, it’s actually bringing that body of work to, I don’t want to say an end, but it’s an apotheosis of those three albums. The label is great in both cases but the actual trio is the focus, not the label. This is the coming together of the trajectory of those three albums.

Why do you think it’s an apotheosis of that trajectory?

Because when Newman joined the band, it was a new construct with him as a drummer; it’s changed the sound of the trio, a different thing altogether. It’s been an evolution over those three albums of the relationship of Mike [Bisio] and Newman Taylor as the rhythm section in the trio and how the music’s developed with Newman’s style. Being that this is the third album and three is the magic number [laughs], that’s how I look at it—other than a new beginning because we’re on ESP.

Do you think your playing has changed …

Yes.

… with Newman Taylor in the group?

Well, I think my playing has changed in general.

From?

Like last week to this week [laughing]. I mean, there’s subtle things, some things only I would pick up. Actually, it’s funny. There was an album of mine, Piano Vortex, and Gary Giddins actually did a piece in JazzTimes and if I recall in that piece, he says something like I was headed into a full-throated period of development, and that was like 12 years ago. [Giddins did write about Piano Vortex in the March 2008 JT, but the word “full-throated” is nowhere to be found in that article.—Ed.] I feel that way today. I feel grateful that I’ve always been able to keep growing, because some people don’t. I don’t know if it’s a matter of a lot of performances or practicing or just the way my mind works. But I’ve been able to keep the music growing somehow. Having new people in the band did help that, because I have to relate to them as people. I could just keep doing what I do and they’re just there as ornaments and that’s not going to get me that far [laughs], or I could choose to really deal with who they are and make that part of the growth process for myself.

Matthew Shipp, Michael Bisio, and Newman Taylor Baker
Matthew Shipp, Michael Bisio, and Newman Taylor Baker at Dizzy’s, New York, February 2019 (photo: R.I. Sutherland-Cohen)

When Piano Song was released, you weren’t entirely sure if you were going to do another trio record.

I just didn’t know what the future held after leaving Thirsty Ear, even though a trio album is something I would not do unless it was on a label where I know it could get a lot of attention. I might put other combinations out on various labels, but for a trio it has to have a certain amount of something behind it for me to do it. So I just wasn’t sure. But it naturally happened. We’d been on the road—not a massive amount, but a decent amount—and the music was growing from live performances and I just felt the need to document where the trio is at.

Do you regard the piano jazz trio as more sacred than other lineups you either lead or co-lead?

Most definitely. As a pianist, to be able to function in a trio is a big thing because there’s such a great body of work in the history of the music of jazz trios. Whether it’s Bill Evans or the Bud Powell Trio, that’s just such a sacred combination. Because the history of the instrument lends itself to solo things, trio just seems to be a configuration [that] then lends itself to the jazz mentality. So, yeah, I take it very seriously [laughing].

Let’s touch on you being a downtown New York City lifer. You’ve been living here in this apartment since …

1990.

It’s changed so much since you moved here …

… and how everybody’s moved out [laughing]. There used to be so many musicians who lived around here. If you walk around now, you’d be hard-pressed to bump into [other musicians].

Who were the first people you met when you arrived? It seems like you integrated into the scene instantly.

I met everybody. You used to be able to walk around here and you ran into musicians. The first week I was here in New York, like the second day maybe, I ran into Billy Bang on the street and I stopped him. I just told him, “I’m a big fan of yours, I just moved to New York,” and the first thing he said to me [was], “Oh, you’re a fan. Do you have 10 dollars you can lend me?” [Laughing] I met everybody, just naturally hanging out on the street.

One of your first places when you moved to New York City was on 10th Street, Charlie Parker’s old place.

I lived there for a couple of months while I was homeless, in Charlie Parker’s old house. The woman that lived there let me stay there when I didn’t have a place to live. I remember it like it was yesterday, even though it was in the early ’80s. 

Are there memories of living there that jump back at you?

Well, I never saw his ghost [laughing]! That was a time of my life that was very pregnant with activity. Let’s just say I was always burning the candle at all ends.

Do you remember your first gig in New York?

I do, actually. It was with a drummer, Frank Bambara, and [saxophonist] Rob Brown. We played at the University of the Streets.

Was there a moment where you felt like you were accepted or “arrived” on the scene?

It was just the perfect thing moving to New York. I fell in with the scene and they understood me and I understood them, like instantly, and that goes for what people would call the “Vision Festival scene.” I met a lot of people, pretty much the first week I was in New York, and it was just like acceptance. This just felt right, moving to this neighborhood.

Getting back to Signature, it seems to have a more complex architecture than, say, Piano Song

I’m actually aiming for simplicity [laughing]. But things happen, and I don’t know what complex is. I have no idea, because I think at the bottom of anything is utter simplicity, even though things take on a life of their own and all kinds of factors enter in. At the bottom of any phenomena, to me, is always a very simple premise. I don’t look at complexity as something to go for in music. I would say there might be more layers, but to me it’s a really different statement than the other two trio albums.

That’s what it strikes me as …

… and I can’t really put my hand on why or what or how, just that it is [laughing]. I was just aiming to be in the moment when it was recorded. That’s all I was aiming for.

Did you go into the studio with ideas and themes for the songs?

This sounds really weird to say for an improvised CD, but I had it mapped out in my head as far as the gestures and as far as the direction. I knew what I wanted each movement to be. Each tune represents a certain gesture and a certain idea and I knew that. When you record, you just don’t know exactly how it’s gonna unfold.

On social media, you’re very outspoken, to say the least, about your feelings on the current president and his administration. But you’ve said the political and social climate does not affect …

Does not affect it. My music is completely about metaphysics and nothing to do with the profane world of politics or anything, or any issues whatsoever. My music is completely about metaphysics.

Matthew Shipp
Matthew Shipp at Roulette in Brooklyn during the 2014 Vision Festival. (photo: R.I. Sutherland-Cohen)

What does the future hold for you?

I have a couple of tours coming up, some work coming up later this year with Ivo Perelman, William Parker, and Daniel Carter, and a lot of trio gigs and solo piano gigs. I have a lot of things in the can on RogueArt: a duo with Evan Parker, a trio with Thomas Lehn and John Butcher, a duo with Rob Brown, a duo with William Parker, and then I have a quartet with my trio and Nicole Mitchell and a duo with Mat Maneri.I also have a week at [John Zorn’s New York performance space] the Stone coming up in May.

What about your own recordings?

Well, Signature is out and my imports on RogueArt will be trickling in, one every few months. Other than that, and I know I’ve been saying this for years, but I’m coming to an end of this recording [cycle]. My plan for my next American release after Signature [is for it] to be a solo piano album, and then it might really be time to call it a day. And I’m not joking. I know I’ve been saying that for years. But I would never retire from performing.

But you are indeed nearing the end of your recording career?

Definitely, until I can assess where the recording industry is at and where I’m at in relation to that. If you have creativity happening, there’s always an impulse to keep moving on to the next project, and I understand that and that is a big part of me, but you can also document stuff and not release it. I might decide to make people hungry at a certain point [laughs]. I’ve been really lucky there. I’ve had so many albums out and when you do that people can get disinterested, and except for that happening, I’ve actually got people more interested over a long period [laughs]. So I feel very lucky to have people actually get something out of my music and follow it and want me to continue.