Matthew Shipp: Art of the Improviser

At age 50, Matthew Shipp boasts one of the most prolific, consistent and challenging catalogs of any musician in his or her field. The pianist’s brain seems to fire on all cylinders all the time, and these two new releases present three different contexts in which to examine his playing in its current state.

The double-disc Art of the Improviser presents two live performances, one with a trio and one solo. Bassist Michael Bisio joins longtime Shipp drummer Whit Dickey on a set from last April at Troy, N.Y.’s Arts Center of the Capital Region. Each tune spills into the next, making the five tracks feel like various sections of a larger suite. Several have appeared previously on studio albums. In the case of “3 in 1,” what began as a three-minute sketch gets stretched to three times its original size, with Shipp playing the descending waltz into the ground and cuing a thunderous Dickey solo full of press rolls and hi-hat clatter. “Circular Temple #1,” from the 1995 album of the same name, lasts 16 minutes and offers the most diverse Shipp solo of the set, which includes crisp tones from plucked piano strings. When the trio shifts into “Take the ‘A’ Train,” the effect is almost humorous, but they treat the composition with respect. Shipp takes a Monk-ian approach, staying very close to the theme and stacking embellishments on top of it.

Two months later, at New York City’s (Le) Poisson Rouge, Shipp did the same thing by himself, playing six tunes in 39 minutes with no breaks and little transition between them. Relax and it’s easy to miss the un-syncopated theme of “Fly Me to the Moon,” which has the same rather glib feel as some of the other non-originals on his recent albums. Otherwise it’s a solid set: Shipp tumbles around the keyboard but his ideas always seem fully developed no matter how rapidly he travels. “Gamma Ray” and “Wholetone” reveal a modern boppish feel, the latter evoking solo Mal Waldron in its two-chord riff.