Matthew Shipp is a valuable rejoinder to the seemingly inescapable question of whether, in terms of what constitutes its fitness as a contemporary genre, jazz is somehow “dead.” A pianist for the ages, he has demonstrated unflagging faith in the form and impatience for its limitations, too. Since the late 1980s, he has played in conventional jazz configurations and numerous other incarnations as well (see his dalliances with electronic musicians Flam and DJ Spooky, plus his work with underground hip-hop boss El-P). Through it all, he answers to a sense of adventure, experimentalism and, above all, a searching curiosity that is visceral and hard-won.
So what better way to take his temperature than by way of a solo piano set? Solo piano albums hold a special place in the heritage of jazz, from classics by Thelonious Monk (like Monk Alone) to more recent contemporary offerings by Keith Jarrett and Craig Taborn. They can’t help but be serious and personal affairs.
Shipp favors all those qualities as a habit, but he’s also beautiful and patient and pure, with an ear for melodic flourish that makes his commanding style heavier when the full weight of it drops. The title track starts with a somber, solemn tone, but it’s clear as he establishes his language that for Shipp, somberness and solemnity are multifaceted states. One moment is hard and dark and the next can be frilly and romantic. It all happens fast and with a flow that is riveting when you move in close and follow it through.
“Summertime” boasts a genuine sense of a brain at work as it winds its way around, but then it eases up and embraces the free spirit of George Gershwin’s original. The rest of I’ve Been to Many Places follows in line, with a rich mix of cerebral meditation and unthinking musicality that comes to glorious terms somewhere in the middle.