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Matthew Shipp: Greatest Hits, Thirsty Ear, 2013

The work of every great artist warrants a retrospective  now and again. It is time for pianist Matthew Shipp to be given one; it is called Matthew Shipp: Greatest Hits. The recording is a well-designed shuffle of twelve years of recording; each piece has been carefully chosen and juxtaposed one to another, without adhering to chronological order.

Shipp’s character blends rumbling rambunctiousness with sheer stamina, pure grace and a shy respectfulness. There is not one cut on this record which can be dismissed as an aspect of the development of Shipp’s own canonical language.  Through two years before and including the decade between ages forty and fifty, his musical language changed markedly.  At first, heavy and irrevocably repetitive, his fingering opens up and he leaves behind his reliance on dark, resonant base chords and, in a breathless, gorgeous grasp of rhythmic vicissitudes, bursts into discovering the effusive breadth of the line he can follow without ever having to draw it beforehand. The challenges he meets allow him to revisit and reassess his piano heritage ranging from Thelonious Monk to Bud Powell to Ran Blake. He never sacrifices what he has learned and appreciated. He blossoms more thoroughly with each note he plays.

Two solos records, One and 4-D, are quoted.  In “Module,” from his first solo record, Shipp dives into the river that is the eight-keys and, within that, maps out the intimate streams and rivulets constituting the whole. And in the title track from 4-D, Shipp lifts many boundaries. In his fingering progressions, he shifts from one level to another painting a picture of surface which emanates light through the shadows.

The earliest of Shipp’s groups documented here is the quartet of 2000, featuring Roy Campbell on trumpet, along with William Parker and Gerald Cleaver on drums. The stark contrast of the fanfare trumpet playing of Campbell with that of Wadada Leo Smith in the tunefully melancholic title cut of the 2001 New Orbit demonstrates Shipp’s focus on establishing a solid sound against varying melodic components.

On the other hand, in 2003, on Equilibrium, Khan Jamal plays vibes and Flam cooks electronic fixings. Flam also appears in 2004’s Harmonic Abyss with Parker and Cleaver and Nu-bop from 2002. In the latter, Guillermo Brown is the drummer and Daniel Carter extends the ultra-rhythm vibe with sax and flute sound, rarely included in Shipp’s entourage. The three contributions from these records require high volume for the appreciation of the groove that William Parker once said caught him traveling in space, not knowing where he was going.

The serious dive into the trio setting starts out with Joe Morris on bass and Whit Dickey on drums. Their Harmonic Disorder and Piano Vortex caught the attention of a wide audience. Shipp was interested in narrowing the number of components with which he could build his vision. His concern with rhythmic content never evades him but the aspect of thematic concerns pervades his exploration. He carried the tune aspect from his solo efforts throughout his work with the trio, sometimes repeating them specifically, e.g. Patmos. The themes he composed are not easily let go through the march of improvisation, which is the process that this group brilliantly mastered together. Consistent with the intense side of Shipp, Morris is mostly an abstract bass player, leaning towards detailed microtones struck between and around the notes that Shipp plays. Dickey is a consummate drummer, who always stays on this side of explosion, cultivating those ever pregnant moments with whispering cymbals and occasional snaps of the snare.  

With 2012’s Elastic Aspects, which is quoted twice on Greatest Hits, Shipp opens the door to another kind of musical heaven. Dickey remains as the drummer, but Michael Bisio takes over the bass. With Bisio, the “seasoning” changes; his heft, ebullience and consistent rhythmic insinuation pulls all the trio’s elements together and manages to create less of an angular package than the one presented in the first trio.

“Circular Temple #1,” from 2011’s The Art of the Improviser, the only live recording in the bunch, ends the collection in this "look-back" at Shipp's last twelve years with Thirsty Ear.  The music in this selection stresses the communion of forces. Spiritually motivated and inspired, Shipp often takes to the inside of the piano and plucks the strings as if they are the tips of angel’s wings. His fingering on the keyboard thereafter takes flight and he goes higher and deeper into the essence of his playing. Drummer Dickey and bassist Bisio undercoat the piano sound smoothly.  And the close is abrupt, as if the music goes on, but is no longer audible.

Listening to Greatest Hits, one hears the fairly obvious differences from group to group and from cut to cut. But what one also hears is how Shipp has penetrated new ground over time, ever-expanding, ever-shifting his musical ideas to address the cosmic nature of his music’s existence. He has catapulted it into the realms of a radiant infinity.

copyright 2013 Lyn Horton

Album Listing: 
Pastoral Composure, 2000;  New Orbit, 2001;  Equilibrium, 2003;  One, 2005;  Harmonic Disorder, 2009; Harmony and Abyss, 2004;  4-D, 2010; Elastic Aspects, 2012;  Nu-Bop, 2002;  Piano Vortex, 2007;  Art of the Improviser, 2011.

All albums released by Thirsty Ear.


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