Matthew Shipp – The Piano Equation
(Tao Forms 01. CD Review by Jon Turney)
The title suggests something formal, hinting at propositions and proofs. And there is a degree of formality in Matthew Shipp’s late-career approach to the piano. He describes his compositions as cellular, and each of the 11 brief pieces in this absorbing recital is a measured, miniature investigation, proceeding from a different idea.
But the mathematical fancy implies constraints that aren’t otherwise evident. Shipp, who turns 60 this year, commands all the varied vocabularies of jazz, classical and free music, and deploys them as the fancy takes him. There are some trademarks – he is especially fond of rummaging in the lower register, with heavy sustain, and of sequences of note clusters that sound almost like conventional chord progressions, but always subtly displaced – but pretty well no cliches.
Instead, there’s pleasing variety in a set that conveys a strong sense of a questing musical sensibility. He might be questing for things music won’t quite deliver – the notes, and some track titles allude to cosmic ambitions. But for this listener it works better to set them aside and just hear these pieces as episodes in a continuing exploration of the possibilities of the piano.
They are diverse, and allow references – often fleeting – to many facets of earlier toilers at the keyboard. Thus, Swing note from deep space begins more-Monkish-than-Monk, as Andrew Hill or Ran Blake might do, before departing for freer territory. Land of the secrets sounds as if it is resisting the temptation to turn into a standard, but only just. Clown pulse opens toying with stride and settles on an almost bluesy theme, if theme is the word here.
Elsewhere, the ideas come and go rapidly, for all that Shipp favours a Mal Waldronesque mid-tempo. Small motifs appear and are rapidly pushed out of shape – hear the almost nursery-rhyme like figure that appears part way through Radio signals equation that Shipp worries away at until it becomes almost menacing in intensity, before a neatly abrupt ending. There’s a continual sense of reaching for the next move, searching for a new angle. The results are more often tone clusters rather than regular chords, but they always chime. If you are in the mood, it’s easy to listen to, whether you attempt to concentrate as intently as the performer, or just go with the flow.
For all the variety, the set as a whole hangs together as a convincing essay in a personal style that has evolved through long thought and study, and is still being refined. You may not always know exactly what Shipp is doing, but will still get a strong sense that he does. That’s a good indicator of art that’s worth further investigation: for player and listener.