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Matthew Shipp: Harmony and Abyss

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It would be too easy to put down Matthew Shipp’s new album because the pianist’s latest forays into electronica don’t leave as much space for the probing, free music with which he first made his name. Of the 10 tracks on Harmony and Abyss, only two find Shipp, bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver cutting loose-and one lasts less than two minutes. The rest of the time, sampled beats set up structures that are rounded out by minor-key melodies from piano, typically powerful bass bowing from Parker and atmospheric synth swirls courtesy of Shipp and co-conspirator Flam.

But slagging Harmony and Abyss for what it lacks takes a position similar to dismissing In a Silent Way for keeping Miles Davis’ trumpet playing to a minimum while atmospherics and studio manipulation take over. That attitude misses the point.

Like Equilibrium from last year, Harmony finds Shipp heading into the world of danceable grooves-jazztronica, if you like-in a manner that keeps the cerebral nature of his past work close by. The beats behind “New ID” sound like a blend of live Cleaver and programmed rhythms, and the combination has energy and plenty of fire. With Parker playing a countermelody to Shipp’s simple line, it feels like a headier version of Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.” Elsewhere, the pieces “3 in 1” and “Virgin Complex” have the feel of ambient classical music, with the latter providing a structure for Parker’s arco work, while the synth noises and melodies of “String Theory” evoke modern film noir.

It might sound confusing on first examination, but like all innovative albums Harmony and Abyss demands further investigation.