|David S. Ware & Matthew Shipp Duo
Live in Sant’Anna Arresi, 2004 (AUM Fidelity)
|Bobby Kapp & Matthew Shipp
Cactus (Northern Spy)
|Matthew Shipp Trio
Piano Song (Thirsty Ear)
“[D]uring the entire 17-year period we worked together, we felt like we were on a mission. Every performance we felt like we were changing the world and lighting up the stars.” Those words come from Matthew Shipp’s liner notes for Live in Sant’Anna Arresi 2004, and reflect on his tenure in David S. Ware’s quartet. The band’s large discography bears witness to the shared intensity between the pianist and the saxophonist, along with bassist William Parker and various drummers. This performance, recorded in Sardinia, offers a more intimate portrait of these close friends and collaborators, as they hit the stage with a high level of energy and sustain it for 46 minutes.
In his rugged, brawny tenor tone, Ware dissects bluesy melodic fragments, pops out some low overtones and squeals passionately in the upper register of his horn. What makes him unique is how he incorporates all of it into one performance. After an array of moments both thoughtful and visceral, he cues a climax in “Tao Flow, Pt. 1,” sounding like a foghorn and growling for 60 majestic seconds. In the second segment of “Tao Flow” (essentially one performance banded into two tracks), he uses his altissimo skills to run through a speedy melodic lick rather than simply shrieking. Whatever Ware does, Shipp meets him on equal ground. The pianist adds thunder for reinforcement or carves out a tempo with walking left-hand figures and boppish chords in the right, changing time signatures or rhythms as needed. For the four-minute “Encore,” the duo trades fours in their own way. Ware has the final word, quoting “Wade in the Water,” to make sure the spirit is felt by all listeners. It’s a wild performance, but it’s not without beauty.
For Cactus, Shipp teamed up in 2016 with Bobby Kapp, a drummer probably best known for recordings with saxophonists Gato Barbieri, Marion Brown and Noah Howard. A quartet under his leadership and including Shipp recorded Themes 4 Transmutation in 2014.
The duo creates nine impressionistic pieces that explore a variety of moods. Kapp comes off less like a firebrand from the ’60s free-jazz era and more like a meditative explorer, reveling in the sound of mallets running across his kit and cymbals. After he does this in “Money,” Shipp enters in a hard-bop mood, hammering out chords and inspiring Kapp to switch over to brushes. “Before” also resides in the bop of a parallel universe, where walking basslines collide with dissonant clusters of notes. But sometimes, as on the lengthy “Good Wood,” the duo seems to have so many options to choose from they have difficulty pursuing one. Still, a sense of aesthetic balance persists.
Though Shipp has been affiliated with several record labels, his relationship with Thirsty Ear has been his most enduring and comprehensive. In addition to releasing his own projects there since 1999, he has served as curator of the imprint’s “Blue Series,” which includes performances by likeminded friends such as William Parker and Roy Campbell. The trio document Piano Song marks the end of Shipp’s tenure as a Thirsty Ear recording artist (though not as a curator).
Bassist Michael Bisio has worked with Shipp for over six years, but drummer Newman Taylor Baker has only been in the group since 2015’s The Conduct of Jazz. He brings elasticity to the trio that makes a performance like “Cosmopolitan” one of the best in an overwhelmingly strong catalog. Here, Baker alternates between laidback swing and a loose pulse, in a way that magnifies the rhythmic cells the pianist unleashes. Along with Bisio’s plucked solo, Baker takes a solo that simply runs free.
Even when the trio gets spare and spacey it retains an air of suspense—cue “Void Of,” with its low piano notes ringing and slowly decaying over Bisio’s gentle bow work. “Blue Desert” sounds both fragmented and focused, as Baker keeps time with a shaker, Bisio scrapes away and Shipp plays a riff that sounds like Miles Davis’ “It’s About Time” turned on its ear. If Shipp is leaving Thirsty Ear, hopefully this configuration will continue at a new home, because these players sound like they’re just getting started.