Matthew Shipp’s musical journey began after he received lessons from Dennis Sandole, one of John Coltrane’s teachers and flourished during a nearly-two-decade tenure in the David S. Ware Quartet. He’s recorded prolifically since then — even by jazz standards — and has been involved with more than two dozen albums as either the leader or co-leader. And yet, to hear Shipp talk, all of that might be coming to an end. Shipp has recently stated that he’s become disenchanted with recording, meaning that fans of avant-garde jazz may soon be without their star performer.
Shipp sat down with Steve Holtje to talk about this decision, as well as why free improvisation still fascinates him.
You wrote, “I really think I have finished this whole cycle of recordings with this — does that mean you’re starting something new after this?
No, that means I feel spent, so I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I might stop recording. It’s a cycle and I’m trying to get out of it, and I can’t seem to extricate myself from the process because I love it, on one level — I felt like I’ve had new things to say, and I am growing still. But when I look at the environment that exists for recorded music now, I’m starting to question the viability of an artist — especially in my case, where I already have a reputation — continuing to put product in the marketplace. So I guess what I would do would be continue to develop, and anybody who wants to see the development would have to come and hear me live.
And yet you’ve been incredibly productive recently.
I really relish the process of the studio; I really relish, over a period of time, building a musical personality that gets shown through the recordings. It’s something I really love to do, and it’s something that I take very seriously. I can stop any time; even though I love the process, I’m not addicted to it, and there’s a part of me that feels that the music-consuming public is not respecting the recording process enough, people take the whole thing for granted, and maybe I should just step outside it for a while.
Your new album is your ninth solo album, and it occasionally looks back to your early style of the early ’90s with the big, ringing chords.
I’m trying to assess everywhere I’ve been, but within the context of who I am now, and how the language has grown on its own and mutated on its own. Obviously, just even including “Summertime,” which I did on Zo in ’93, I’m looking back to the early ’90s. I’m looking back even before the early ’90s, though, to when I played straight-ahead [jazz].
Yeah, I was wondering about “Where Is the Love.” Is that left over from your lounge piano years?
Not only is it a leftover from that, but one of the first jazz albums I ever got on my own was a Phineas Newborn, Jr. album, Solo Piano, with a picture of a sphinx on it. And he does two versions of “Where Is the Love,” like I do. My versions are based on his, more or less. I got that album when I was 12, and I probably learned that tune when I was 13.
I put a lot of thought into the song choices, the pieces I picked, and why. They all mean something to me. “Tenderly” I did with David Ware, though my approach to it is way different from his approach. It really meant a lot to me to do “Naima” again, because Coltrane was such an instrumental part of my childhood. I recorded that on Gravitational Systems, a duo with Mat [Maneri], but it’s really grown and I’ve been working for years trying to really figure out a new zone for that tune, and I feel I found one where I can really let the piano sing. I can almost do that ostinato pattern in the left hand — it’s almost like Beethoven — but yet in the right hand, I really found a way to really lyrically let that tune ring out and sing and bleed melody from the piano. I don’t think Coltrane could ever imagine that tune going where it did there, but yet I adhere pretty close to the tune. I don’t really deviate at all on that. “Summertime” means a lot to me because I played it with William [Parker] all those years, but I stopped playing it for years. I just revamped it for this. I think the last time I’d played it was when I did Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland and we did a couple tunes together. That’s such a known tune, I did that, and obviously she knows it, ’cause we did it together. I think it’s available online.
We’re conscious of keeping them short, and whatever gesture either one of us starts out, we’re very conscious of making it concentrated on that gesture. ‘Cause Darius definitely does not want to be just considered a free jazz sax player. He’s very conscious of not going off in any ways where people can pigeonhole him that way. So I go along with the ride. Darius is very conscious of the whole idea of the art song and trying to make this an improvised duo but we find a gesture somehow and then we both process it as well, so improvisation is based on this gesture. We try to make it short, compact, and compositional within whatever gesture it finds itself starting out with.
Your stuff with Ivo Perelman is also very concentrated, in a different way.
I refuse to do that unless the situation really calls for it, because that’s not where I’m at right now. I would say the stuff with Ivo has taken on very different aspects. It depends on the group. The groups with William [Parker] are different than the ones with [Michael] Bisio. But if [Ivo] has my trio with him, like he has on two of the albums, there’s a certain way that’s going, and it’s definitely in the jazz tradition.
One of the things people have always thrown at free jazz is “this doesn’t contain such-and-such that we consider to be absolutely necessary for jazz.”
I think that’s from a really limited mentality that sees an academic jazz way of being as the center of the universe. If you approach the music artistically, in an expressionistic way, you can’t have those types of pseudo-professional paradigms in your head, because those things just don’t serve creativity, or any type of progressive mindset that allows music to be whatever it needs to be for the expression. People that think that way are robbing themselves. If you think that way, you just can’t create anything, your whole output will be stilted, because you really think the universe operates a certain way and it doesn’t operate that way, it just doesn’t.
Once you start having an agenda for whatever reason, you’re fucked — it’s over. Take swing. It’s not a defined, fixed thing. Swing always means that whatever the organism is, the parts work together. Once you’ve set it and defined that it has to fall in space a certain way, you’ve automatically killed it, ’cause it has to breathe on its own. Any living organism generates its own space-time by breathing. All of this is a living, breathing organism, and it can never be defined because it’s always changing, mutating on its own like anything in nature.
It doesn’t really matter what anybody thinks. The bottom line is: Everybody has to figure out what works for them and play likewise. Everybody has to set their own agenda, including me. I don’t set any agenda, I’m just an asshole who plays piano.