Over the years, New York pianist Matthew Shipp has been involved with such a diverse set of projects that a three night residency at Cafe Oto could barely scratch the surface. From his experimentations with electronics and hip-hop on his own Blue Series label, to the avant-garde improvisations with the Treader collective helmed by Ashley Wales and John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack, through collaborations with masters such as David S Ware and Roscoe Mitchell, he has covered more ground than most. The other two nights of this London stay was to take in performances with great local improvisers such as Paul Dunmall, John Edwards, Mark Sanders and John Butcher, while this second night featured the Spiritualized pairing of Jason Pierce and John Coxon, with the commanding figure of Steve Noble on drums
This night was something of an oddity in that Shipp wasn’t billed as playing piano. Instead, he spent the entire set – or rather, two sets with no gap in between – behind a Farfisa. He opened in a duo with Jason Pierce, or J Spaceman as he likes to call himself, on guitar. Reprising ideas from their SpaceShipp project, they were to spend around half an hour producing unrelenting waves of wah-wah and keyboard drone. This quickly went from enjoyable to Tony Conrad-style endurance test, before ending up being actually quite interesting – the subtle inflections in tone, slight shifts of feet on pedals, infrequent chord changes began to take on the status of significant events. There was a real sense of scientific exploration, colliding tones and clusters against each other to see what would spark off. As Shipp kneaded away at his keys, like a cat padding a blanket, it made me think of those Miles Davis gigs where he wouldn’t play trumpet, and would instead just bang on a keyboard with his elbow. And like those Miles Davis experiments, you have to lay aside your preconceptions and accept it for what it is – sure, you’re not seeing one of the world’s greatest trumpeters or pianists demonstrating the full spectrum of their talents – but is it, on its own terms, something worth hearing? In both cases, the answer is an undoubted yes.
When Noble and Coxon entered, I was very interested to see how they would get involved with this monolithic slab of noise and take it somewhere else. Sadly they didn’t get a chance to engage; Shipp brought the edifice crashing down with a flurry of chords. For the rest of the set, he was to lock horns with the energetic Noble, who was remarkably keen to push the piece into highly rhythmic places – being bass free, it never really swung or got funky, just pulsed frantically. Noble was to dig into his bag of toys, scattering cymbals and bells on his kit to give them some new sounds to work against. The squalling guitars of Coxon and Pierce were mainly providing texture, filling in the space between the deep organ drone and the high-pitched salvo of cymbal and rimshots which the drummer was tossing out. Pierce continued to scrub at his strings, while Coxon was the more experimental, scraping his fingers down the strings and producing some unconventional Bailey-like noises. At the centre of all this, Shipp was rampaging all over his keys, clearly relishing the way that the choice of instrument – and Noble in particular – was pushing him into places outside his comfort zone.