Matthew Shipp – Art of the Improviser (2011)

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by Mark Saleski

The music of jazz composer/pianist Matthew Shipp isn’t fairly described as “avant garde,” mostly because to a great many people, that categorization can be read as “I don’t understand this music, can we please leave now?” This wouldn’t be fair to Shipp because over the course of his career, he has spent a lot of time trying to include other musics into what we know as jazz. From his work with the likes of Spring Heel Jack, The Antipop Consortium, and DJ Spooky, as well as his ear-opening Blue Series on Thirsty Ear Recordings (producing music from artists such as EL-P, Groundtruther, and free form funky freqs), Shipp has worked tirelessly to push those boundaries.

Art of the Improviser, a dual set of live recordings, celebrates Shipp’s talents in two traditional settings. The first is a recording of Shipp with his trio (bassist Michael Bisio and longtime cohort Whit Dickey on drums), captured at The Arts Center of the Capital Region, in Troy New York. The second disc has Shipp performing solo at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York city. Both shows took place in the spring of 2010.

On the trio set, there’s definitely some telepathic hijinx going on. First of all, I was very glad to see Shipp reach way back for both “Virgin Complex” (from 1994’s Critical Mass) and “Circular Temple #1” (Circular Temple came out the following year). Circular Temple was the first Matthew Shipp recording I bought, and it was fun to hear those chiming arpeggios against the bowed bass in the introduction. This leads into some wide open passages with the piano setting clusters adrift over percussion and pizzicato bass lines. It seems like chaos wants to take over but of course, that never quite happens. But before we get there, we have “The New Fact” into “3 in 1,” where Shipp switches from the opening heavy dirge of chords to a temporary bit of Monk to something that sounds like Cecil Taylor if he backed off on the super-heavy percussives. Shipp is characteristically fleet of ideas, with melodic passages woven seamlessly between short bursts of energy and aggression. Behind the kit, Whit Dickey frames and comments with endless variations. The band drops away to allow for a virtuosic and tension-building bass solo by Michael Bisio. When Shipp and Dickey return and revisit the head, it seems to have risen a few notches on the ominous scale. Great stuff. Before the set closes out with “Virgin Complex,” it’s time for the purists to be offended by Shipp’s sideways “interpretation” of “Take The ‘A’ Train.” What a tremendous exploration of the jazz classic’s harmonic possibilities.

For the solo set at (Le) Poisson Rouge further reveals Shipp’s particular improvisational genius. Sure, there’s a deconstruction (of sorts) of “Fly Me To The Moon” (which at points had me giggling), but there’s also the ultra-spikey “Gamma Ray,” the brooding (and then searching) “Wholetone,” and “Patmos,” which closes out the set. The song begins with a series of repeated figures which are take further and further out, in fact, to the point of destruction (with brutal hammered clusters). Shipp then seems to pick up the melodic fragments in several attempts to reconstruct what has been broken. When the original theme arrives intact, it feels triumphant.

Indeed, ‘triumphant’ is a word rightfully attached to Matthew Shipp’s career and body of work. It’s too bad that hardly anybody in the jazz world is granted recognition in the greater cultural stream, as Shipp might be just the right artist to turn an “I don’t understand this music…” into a believer.


Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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