Matthew Shipp – Symbol Systems (1996, 2018 reissue)

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In many of my studies of Matthew Shipp’s recordings, I make mention of his unique style of expression on the piano. With the benefit of hindsight this time, there’s an opportunity to gauge how his singular language has evolved over the years.

That’s just one of several reasons to embrace the decision by hatOLOGY Records to re-issue a record Shipp had originally recorded in 1995 and released the following year under the No More Records label. Symbol Systems is the first of Matthew Shipp’s solo piano records during a period in his career that’s in a stark contrast to the present day when he’s nearly as likely to issue recordings with only him at the piano as he is to put forth a record of him in an ensemble or one-on-one with another musician. It’s also back during the time when Shipp wasn’t commanding the attention he currently enjoys, which apparently had not impacted his famously independent-minded approach to his career, one where he has earned hard-won respect following his muse and nobody else’s.

Hat Art didn’t merely re-release the original 1996 master, they did some re-mixing to enhance the sound, putting Matthew Shipp’s cagey manipulations of the innovations by Herbie Nichols, Cecil Taylor, Bud Powell and others into sharper focus. Each song is its own entity, and subject to Shipp’s whims, whether it is a series of long, flowing cascades (“Frame”), pulsating vamps (“Harmonic Oscillator”), spare figures (“Temperate Zone”), boogie-woogie blues (“Algebraic Boogie”) or a mixture of moods (“The Highway”). Moreover, Shipp here — as he’s always done — doesn’t burden listeners with overlong, exhaustively aimless pieces. These performances end as soon as the ideas that inform them do.

Matthew Shipp is first and foremost a sonic painter of motifs, applying his brushstrokes unconsciously informed by the established dictates of classical, jazz and blues to create art that doesn’t fit into any known realm. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, Symbol Systems does seem to anticipate what would follow (aside from the obvious, that there would be more solo piano expeditions). The percussive riffs sprinkled throughout this session which at first blush seemed to pay homage to Taylor now looks more like precursors to Shipp’s experiments of combining improvised music with hip hop just a few years later. The brimming, darting energy of the title track presaged the stimulating duets with Ivo Perelman; one could almost hear how the Brazilian saxophonist would react to the gauntlet of tightly compacted chords Shipp lays down.

Symbol Systems opened a new chapter into the bountiful art of Matthew Shipp, a chapter he has continuously amended to this day. But repeat readings of his vintage work is merited and wisely, hatOLOGY saw to it that we got this occasion to do so.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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