Matthew Shipp Trio at Vortex, 17/2/11

Matthew Shipp

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.

Michael Bisio

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.

Matthew Shipp

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.

Michael Bisio

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Matthew Shipp with J Spaceman, John Coxon and Steve Noble at Cafe Oto, 13/02/10

Matthew Shipp

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.

John Coxon

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.

J Spaceman, Steve Noble, John Coxon