Since setting out as a leader in his own right, Matthew Shipp has mapped out an area of land on the border between jazz and electronic music via his custodianship of Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series. Collaborations with artists like El-P, DJ Spooky, Anti-Pop Consortium and Scanner have led him out into some distinctively experimental terrain, which makes his recent return to more conventional formats all the more surprising. His new CD, The Art Of The Improviser showcases his solo piano flights on one disc, and his piano trio excursions on the other. But I guess if you are going to stop and take stock at some point, the point at which you turn fifty might be as good a time as any. And, especially if you have as much to take stock of as Matthew Shipp. Despite this seeming scaling back of his ambitions, at the Vortex tonight, backed with the other two members of his trio, he proved he could still pack a lot of impressive detail, technique, and unconventionality into two very dense sets.
Even leaving aside the Ornette Coleman resonances of the title to Shipp’s new album (coincidental, we are assured) there seems to be an urge on his part to check back in with jazz heritage, to remind himself as much as anyone else just what it is that he does and why. He is seeking perhaps to forceably integrate his own work into the jazz continuum, even if both have to suffer a little damage as a result – Shipp’s work being separated from its non-jazz appendages, the classical canon being reduced to bare bones. A considerable amount of collateral damage tonight was taken by the Vortex piano, which endured some of the most vicious block chord pounding I’ve seen in the venue. It was pretty loud in here last Friday, when Shackleton and Ekoplekz rattled the rafters with their bass bins, but Shipp and Michael Bisio conspired to make more noise than I’ve ever heard a piano and bass combination make.
We were only a few minutes in before Bisio resorted to meeting some thunderous two-handed staccato hammering from Shipp by whipping at his strings with his index finger, producing huge, buzzy thwonks. During a lengthy Jimmy Garrison-esque solo during the first set (he put so much into this that he looked like he might cry at the end) he seemed to apply so much pressure that the friction became insurmountable, the bow sticking fast on the strings for a moment, creating the only moment of silence all evening. He was pinching strings together, running the bow up them as well as across them to create some particularly harsh and dissonant scrapes. During this first set drummer Whit Dickey’s contribution seemed a little opaque, overly unobtrusive, even too regular at times, swung cymbals dissolving to such soft skitterishness that you sometimes even forgot he was there.
They combined to differing degrees to to create these two huge structures which built impressively and quickly from the romantic and melodic through a mutant funk to something intense and near impenetrable. Fragments of tunes you half-recognised appeared during the process, distended sections of “Frere Jacques” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” (and was that also “On Green Dolphin Street’ I heard? It really wasn’t easy to pick these out), merging into sections that seemed hopelessly tangled, before resolving once again into Shipp compositions such as “3by1” and “Virgin Complex”.
The more challenging it got, the less demarcated became the splits between the individual pieces, and the more impressive became Dickey’s contribution, the pulse becoming stronger, the drummer springing on the diving board before launching himself off into a deep, rhythmic solo. For his part, when he wasn’t beating at his instrument, Shipp was pawing at it, like a dog swimming across a river, a vast, fast-flowing river of sound. That the crossing was so exciting spoke volumes: in stripping back what he does, Shipp has reconnected with that essential and, indeed, experimental core of his art.