A jazz pianist who generated an audience primarily among independent rock enthusiasts—those who would otherwise listen to the likes of Yo La Tengo, DJ Spooky, or Femi Kuti—Matthew Shipp creates music that seems difficult to categorize. But despite the fact that his records sell to a limited market as most mainstream success is limited to the jazz legends and singers who bridge the divide between jazz and adult-oriented pop, Shipp never expected anything more. “To me the jazz industry is outdated in every way, “the avant-garde pianist said to Steve Dollar of the Wall Street Journal.” It’s always been for people from outside the jazz industry who have recognized my talent. You can’t rely on people who just buy jazz albums. If you do, your rent’s not going to get paid.” Fortunately, by directing his attention to listeners outside of jazz as well, Shipp has managed to stay afloat. His concepts have flourished on small, independent American and European record labels, and fans, usually those who support hip college radio, have embraced his technique.
As a jazz artist, Shipp enjoys the idea of reaching a variety of listeners, appreciates open-mindedness, and, in fact, believes that all forms of music share certain distinctions. “I think jazz by its nature, from bebop on, is an underground language with a very similar gestural genesis to punk, “he expressed to David Reitzes in an interview for Oculus magazine. “Obviously, it’s a completely different music and even the sociology behind it is different, but there’s definitely similarities.” Furthermore, Shipp is thankful that critics find him hard to pin down. “I like people not being able to be pigeonholed, “he explained. “I mean, when you get down to it, I obviously come out of the avant-garde jazz tradition and therefore the jazz piano tradition … but one thing that’s always struck me about the genius of the idiom is that it can kind of encompass everything, theoretically. If you listen to Albert Ayler, you hear folk songs, you hear elements of traditional jazz on some of his earlier albums, you hear spirituals. If you listen to [John] Coltrane you’ll hear Indian music, African music, along with his obvious underpinnings in jazz. If you listen to Cecil Taylor you’ll hear some classical things…. I approach the music as music, not as various genres. I’m not trying to make a music that’s a mixture of this or that, but a lot of this or that is in it.”
Candid and unpretentious, yet confident, Shipp represents the younger generation of jazz artists who, regardless of their training, remain self-directed at heart. These intuitives—composing and playing in a spirit reminiscent of Ayler, Coltrane, Sun Ra, Omette Coleman, and Taylor, among others—seek first and foremost to explore the farthest reaches of the jazz form. Moreover, their goal is to reach a higher consciousness or to fulfill a personal and/or musical destination, rather than to excel as popular entertainers or honor traditions of the past. Therefore, it seems only natural for Shipp, who by the age of 39 had recorded some 18 or 19 albums by his count as a leader (though not all have been released) and at least as many as a sideman, to have gravitated toward the avant-garde. From the early 1990s, he has served as a fixture on the ever-changing downtown music scene of New York, extracting jazz and classical traditions from a personal, improvised language that resists simple translation or comparison.
Born on December 7, 1960, in Wilmington, Delaware, Shipp, inspired by local church organists, took up the piano at the age of five. And at age 12, after seeing Ahmad Jamal perform on public broadcast television, he knew that he wanted to concentrate on jazz. Also of consequence to Shipp’s early musical direction was his parents’ love for the form. Throughout his formative years, his parents spun records by the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis. “My parents were jazz enthusiasts, “he said to Fred Jung of Jazz Weekly online. “My mother was actually friends with jazz trumpet great Clifford Brown. So there was always jazz around the house. I had been hearing jazz my whole life.”
While taking regular classical piano lessons, Shipp first listened to a lot of records by Oscar Peterson. Then around age 13, after spending time reading books in the library and making lists of records to buy, he fell under the spell of John Coltrane. Right away, he understood exactly where the musical legend was coming from. “The thing about Coltrane I think, Coltrane completely transcends what is jazz, “he said to
Took up piano at age five; focused on jazz beginning at age 12; relocated to New York, 1980s; released debut album, Sonic Explorations, 1987; released DNA, retired from leading own group, 1999; named artistic director of the Thirsty Ear Records line the Blue Series, released Pastoral Composure, 2000.
Jung. “I don’t mean that as anything disparaging toward jazz, but I think that there is jazz that appeals to just jazz enthusiasts and then there is music … with a universal appeal for whatever reason that somehow transcends just being jazz and Coltrane is definitely one of those things. There is an energy in Coltrane. There is an energy, a radiance to it that is not unlike Jimi Hendrix….”
Cecil Taylor, the pianist to whom Shipp is most often compared, also served as a significant influence. Similar to Taylor, Shipp adopts an abstract view of melody, easily suspends rhythms, and appears to lose himself in a piece of music, attacking the piano with an intense, physical technique. “Cecil Taylor’s definitely in the jazz pantheon of pianists, and definitely someone whose music I greatly admired, “he recalled to Down Beat magazine contributor Laurie Stalter. “But I knew at an early age that though I enjoyed his music, I had to get completely away from it. I had to develop my own identity, and I knew that being too into him was dangerous. So I proceeded to extricate myself from Taylor’s sound and came to my own. I greatly admire him as a pioneer, but I moved on 20-some years ago.”
“I equally love Fats Waller, Bud Powell, Monk, Duke Ellington’s piano, Andrew Hill, Paul Bley, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, “Shipp added, “and the list goes on from there. I listen to and learn from my inner voice, too, something which has nothing to do with any of them…. I am a jazz player, though, through and through. All my life I’ve been a fan of the jazz continuum. I’ve considered calling myself a universal musician, meaning that I approach music in the way Coltrane did, trying to study music from all around the world, and to appropriate rhythms from all cultures.” However, Shipp was never content to imitate others. “I’ve always searched for a style of playing that is Matthew Shipp, “he disclosed. “Finding my own attack, my own colors, my own lines, I can theoretically apply to anything. I’m not looking to be a chameleon. I’m looking always to be me.”
Realizing even as a teenager he was different from his friends, who listened to pop, soul, and rock & roll, Shipp listened to his jazz records alone in his bedroom on headphones, and at school he conversed with classmates about artists like Hendrix and Stevie Wonder. Likewise, when he was old enough to play with pick-up bands, he usually played on a Fender Rhodes electric piano. After graduating from high school, Shipp enrolled at the University of Delaware in order to please his father, but ended up dropping out a year later. Returning to music, he studied with Coltrane’s former teacher, Dennis Sandole, for a while, then attended the New England Conservatory of Music for a couple of years before moving to New York City. Once settled here, according to Shipp, he had already decided upon how he would proceed in terms of his own personal style. “It’s a volatile tongue that can speak in the hushed tones of devotional austerity and shout with the cathartic promise of a wrecking ball, “offered Dollar as a description, “deliberately mocking the notion of conventional swing while proposing a highly charged abstraction of its fundamental values.”
Shipp debuted on record with 1987’s Sonic Explorations, recorded with alto saxophonist Rob Brown and released on the Cadence label. Since then, the prolific pianist has made in excess of 30 albums, serving as leader for more than half of these recordings. His body of work includes his own compositions, such as 1998’s Strata on the Swiss hatArt imprint, featuring saxophonist Daniel Carter, trumpeter Roy Campbell, and bassist William Parker, and 1994’s Critical Mass for 2.13.61/Thirsty Ear, with appearances by violinist Mat Maneri. Additionally, Shipp recorded numerous albums with the David S. Ware Quartet, explored duo work with first-rate improvisers like guitarist Joe Morris for Thesis (released in 1997 on Hatology) and Roscoe Mitchell for 2-Z (released on 2.13 in 1997), and gave performances as a sideman. His body of work also contains offerings such as The Multiplication Table, comprising originals with striking new versions of jazz standards.
In 1999, Shipp returned with DNA, a duo with Parker full of introspective and abstract soundscapes that also branches out into traditional American music, as evidenced on an impassioned rendition of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” and a straightforward reading of the spiritual “Amazing Grace.” With the release of this album, however, Shipp announced in the fall of that year he would retire as a band leader, believing he had significantly documented his musical persona. Still, he showed no signs of slowing down as a performer, continuing to record with some of the most impressive artists on the contemporary music scene.
But Shipp’s retirement from the driver’s seat proved short-lived. In the spring of 2000, he reversed his proclamation, accepting an offer to become artistic director of former hardcore singer Henry Rollins’ Thirsty Ear Record’s new jazz imprint, the Blue Series. His first offering on the label, Pastoral Composure, released in April of that year, featured Shipp, Parker, Campbell, and drummer Gerald Cleaver. His most conventional work to date, drifting toward the mainstream with bright melodies infused with blues and bop, the album puzzled many of his longtime followers, but earned favorable reviews and included solo piano tracks that allowed Shipp to assert his distinctive style. Around the same time, Shipp released a duet with Maneri entitled Gravitational Forces, recorded before his hiatus.
In his new position at Thirsty Ear, Shipp called upon musicians who compose music that has been identified by the recording industry as the “ecstatic movement.” Not surprisingly, Shipp himself took exception to such a label. “That’s a marketing term, period, “he said to Stalter. “I view myself as myself, and I’m not part of any movement or school. The only thing I would say I’m a part of is the world that centers around William Parker. I play a lot of situations, all different; even within my own music, I go for different things in different groups, though they’re held together by the texture of my playing. I’m just a musician; not an ecstatic musician, not a this or that musician, just a musician.”
Sonic Explorations, Cadence, 1987.
Circular Temple, Quinton/lnfinite Zero, 1991.
Points: Trio, Silkheart, 1992.
Zo: Duo with William Parker, Rise/2.13, 1993.
Critical Mass, 2.13, 1994.
Symbol Systems: Solo Piano, No More, 1995.
Prism, Brinkman, 1996.
Before the World: Solo Piano, FMP, 1997.
2-Z: Duo with Roscoe Mitchell, No More, 1997.
The Flow of X: Quartet, 2.13, 1997.
Blink of Any Eye: Duo with Rob Brown, No More, 1997.
By the Law of Music: String Trio, hatArt, 1997.
Thesis: Duo with Joe Morris, Hatology, 1997.
The Multiplication Tables: Trio, Hatology, 1998.
Strata: Horn Quartet, Hatology, 1998.
DNA: Duo with William Parker, Thirsty Ear, 1999.
Magnetism: Trio with Rob Brown & William Parker, Bleu Regard, 1999.
Gravitational Systems: Duo with Mat Maneri, Hatology, 2000.
Pastoral Composure: Quartet, Blue Series, 2000.
With the David S. Ware Quartet
Great Bliss Volumes 1, 2, Silkheart, 1991.
Flight of I, DlW/Columbia, 1992.
Third Ear Recitation, DIW, 1993.
Earthquation, DIW, 1995.
Cryptology, Homestead, 1995.
Oblations and Blessings, Silkheart, 1996.
DAO, Homestead, 1996.
Godspelized, DIW, 1996.
Wisdom of Uncertainty, AUM Fidelity, 1997.
Go See the World, Columbia/Sony, 1998.
Surrendered, Columbia/Sony, 2000.
(Joe Morris Ensemble) Elsewhere, Homestead, 1996.
(Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory) Nine to Get Ready, ECM, 1999.
(Other Dimensions in Music) Time Is Of the Essence Is Beyond Time, AUM/Fidelity, 2000.
Down Beat, September 2000, pp. 31-32; October 2000, p. 79.
Magnet, May/June 1998. Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2000.
AUM Fidelity, http://www.aumfidelity.com (December 6, 2000).
Jazz Weekly, http://www.jazzweekly.com (December 6, 2000).
Oculus, http://www.oculus.com (December 6, 2000).
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