Often the choice to make jazz is a choice between sticking with established ways of playing the idiom or taking risks and trying something that attempts to push out the frontiers. For those few who have truly developed their own voice, this poses no dilemma; their personality is the dominant force in their music whether they are playing “in the tradition” or undertaking a bold new direction.
That’s been the constant of Matthew Shipp’s recordings, which span not just several decades but so many projects built upon ideas that alternately veered close to the mainstream and flew out to some far away galaxy in the minds of so-called traditionalists. Taken as a whole, such distinctions don’t matter; it’s all Matthew Shipp music.
The Conduct of Jazz (October 23, 2015, Thirsty Ear Recordings) is a Shipp trio effort that, topically at least, posits itself closer to modern mainstream jazz than free jazz — compared to most of his records — but it’s the sound of a band attempting to play it “straight” but can’t shed long-held habits of playing with a playful sense of adventurism. It makes sense, because that’s what the Matthew Shipp Trio is all about.
The other interesting wrinkle in The Conduct of Jazz is the introduction of a new drummer, one we revealed when announcing the release of this new Trio record. For decades, Newman Taylor Baker has made an impact everywhere he’s been (Henry Threadgill, Billy Bang, Henry Grimes, Leroy Jenkins, Billy Harper) and his challenging rhythms and deep sensitivity is already making itself known in an ensemble that long enjoyed the drums of the well-regarded Whit Dickey.
Baker takes no time in fitting right in and the group telepathy is not only good, it’s often pushing the needle to the redline. Take “Ball In Space” for instance: Bisio draws long breaths from his arco bass for a full two minutes, but then makes way for Shipp’s soft patters that work up to a strident climb. Bisio and Baker then engage with Shipp on unpremeditated interplay that’s startling in its symbiosis, broken up by dramatic, bombastic low chords bellowing from the piano. “The Conduct of Jazz” rhythmically swings but is harmonically adventurous and spunky, as the rhythm section pushes Shipp hard and yet plays so loose. “The Bridge Across” is the concluding twelve-minute epic of episodic emotions bound together by group symbiosis. During one part, Shipp and Bisio engage for a playful chase with Baker not far behind, and at another point Baker is precisely anticipating Shipp’s moves.
Shipp, as he’s done so many times before, is able to take a simple motif and trust that his bandmates will do something special with it. The correctly titled “Instinctive Touch” a pattern evocative of tradition but Baker’s and Bisio’s adventurism refuses to live in the past and Shipp himself refuses to play it in a rote manner. For “Blue Abyss,” Shipp presents a McCoy Tyner-like figure followed by a different harmonic companion to it after each go-around, with Baker providing strong support on the groove. Baker sets off dazzling, small explosions around Shipp’s simple figure on “Primary Form,” and Shipp and Bisio eventually join in on the joyful calamity.
The solo piano performance “Stream of Light” sheds light on Shipp’s background steeped in classical and Cecil Taylor with perhaps a few Monk-isms tossed in, but the end product is 100% Shipp.
Like Thelonious Monk before him, Matthew Shipp can take something basic and well established, like, say the blues, and shape it into something that’s far ahead in a dialect that no one will mistake for anyone else. And it’s an approach that enables him to be unconcerned about sounding too much like conventional even when he makes a conscious effort to stay within the established parameters of jazz. Michael Bisio and Newman Taylor Baker share that vision whole-heartedly, too. As a result, The Conduct of Jazz honors the real jazz tradition of breaking outside of previously placed constraints.
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