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Sun Shipp: An Interview with Jazz Pianist Matthew Shipp

By Brian L. Knight

Pianist Matthew Shipp is one of the hottest items in the New York City jazz scene in these. He has recorded on innumerable albums as both a sideman and leader and through his innovative improvisations, in which he flirts with free jazz, traditional jazz and classical music, Shipp’s popularity has stretched beyond the jazz spectrum. In recent years, his playing has appealed to every kind of music fan - from punk rockers to college radio addicts. After listening to his most two recent releases, DNA and Pastoral Composure (both on Thirst Ear Records), it is easy to see where this widespread appreciation is coming from. With DNA, which is a duet with longtime colleague, bassist William Parker, there is an incredible feeling of spirituality that arises from the tandem free jazz explorations. On Pastoral Composure, Shipp returns to a traditional form of a quintet but the same passion is all over album. Pastoral Composure is the first installment of the Blues Series that is released produced by Thirsty Ear. As the series curator, Shipp is looking to record many of the similar jazz musicians who comprise the New York City scene. With the impressive Pastoral Composure as the series flagship, we have a lot to look forward to in coming months.

The Vermont Review spoke to Shipp from his home in New York City where he as been for the last 16 years. Through our discussion we discovered much about Shipp's driving force, his influences and what lies ahead in the future.

Vermont Review: There is a long tradition of jazz from New York City – Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Minton’s Playhouse, Village Vanguard. Do you feel like you are carrying it on?

Matthew Shipp: Yeah. When I first moved here, I actually, for a little period, lived in Charlie Parker’s old house. There is a woman that lives there now and I was a border there. Anyway, the feeling of awe is definitely here. Where I live now, Club Slug’s used to be right across the street. Mingus used to live on 5th Street; I live on 3rd Street. He used to live right around the corner. Pretty much everybody has lived in this neighborhood at some time.

VR: What is Slug’s today?

MS: It is a club. It just changed names…. I am not even sure the name of it.

VR: In just reading about your music, so many different words are used: explosive, subtle, gospel, punk, avant-garde, folk, bebop. Just by looking at all these words, I can take a guess that you are one that wants to avoid being labeled. Despite that fact, will you take a stab at it?

MS: All those words convey one aspect of it. I would basically say that I am a turn of the century musician. For a lack of a better word, I play jazz influenced new music with spiritual overtones…. which was John Coltrane did. He was attempting to develop a cosmic type of music. It was jazz based. I feel that I am involved in the same type of process where I take rhythms from all over the world and try to melt them down to a common denominator.

VR: When you say the word "spiritual", do you look towards a religious spirituality?

MS: No. In what I do there is a quest for the understanding of what it is to create a universe. It is like the generation of a cosmos. From that, it is just dealing with a quest for what language is. Of course, in this realm I am talking about musical language. I just think when you deal with rhythm language and generation, those are kind of cosmic themes.

VR: You related to how Coltrane had a spirituality and I can see how that relates to being cosmic. But how about the "celestial" aspects of cosmic, like in the way Sun Ra was cosmic?

MS: I think in Sun Ra’s case, it was just taking mythology and kind of doing………I don’t want to call it a spoof but……..I think there have always been cosmic themes in music. You go back to Johann Sebastian Bach….he was a religious composer. I think in music and jazz in particular, Coltrane and Sun Ra might be two people that exemplified different approaches to having spirituality in music. One person, in Coltrane’s case, there was an intense, quest to reach transcendence through sound. In Sun Ra’s case he appropriated certain aspects of mythology and created a personality for his own musical self. He created an other worldly type of situation in jazz that was definitely a parallel world to what most people were thinking what jazz was at time. In both cases, they were attempting to deal with infinity and that is where it becomes cosmic.

VR: So must have been a long road in developing your "cosmic music". What kind of music did you start of listening to?

MS: As a kid, I listened to everything. I always had an open mind and considered it all music. Whether it was John Coltrane, Michael Jackson, Sun Ra, Johann Sebastian Bach, John Cage, Iggy Pop. I took it all in and dealt from there. I realized that I had a specific personality and I wanted my music to be an outgrowth of my personality.

VR: Was there music in your family – were your parents musicians?

MS: Not really. There was music in the house – they collected jazz albums. They were jazz enthusiasts of sorts but they were not jazz musicians.

VR: What do they think of you as a musician?

MS: They are into it. This is not their type of music that I do but they saw the progression. The saw me when I used to play classical music; then I was a straight ahead jazz; when I decided to be a composer – they saw the whole evolution and they understand it. I don’t like the word evolution……….they saw the changes that occurred. They saw that somehow it did all make a logical sense.

VR: Why don’t you like the word evolution?

MS: I mistrust that word sometimes. That word, to me, implies that things are getting better or worse. I don’t know. Sometimes things change and that’s it.

VR: You mentioned that you are a composer and you also mentioned the famous composer John Cage. At the same time, you are associated with playing free jazz or avant-garde, which is stereotyped as lacking composition. To you, what is the relationship between composing and the avant-garde?

MS: If you like what a composer is and define it by the type of people, there is no relationship. The bottom line is they are both music. The relationship is that you are a musician operating in the world trying to, and I hate to use this word, create a product that makes sense. I am defining a product as a recording artist. You do a CD and that is your calling to the world. I guess that the bottom line is that you want to makes sense to a group of people. The methodology of 20th Century classical music and jazz music is different but it requires discipline for both crafts. So if you have a 20-minute written piece and you have a 20-minute improvisation and they are both good pieces of music, then there is no difference because there has been discipline that has been generated to get a craft together. Whether the craft is being able to think on your feet in front of people at a really fast rate and your reflexes are creating the music on the instrumentation or whether it is with pen or pencil over a long period time. If you have a 40 minute CD of written music or a 40 minute CD of improvised music and they are both good than that’s that.

VR: For your album DNA, how much of was it composed and how much was it improvised?

MS: I really don’t like talking that way because that’s our craft, improvising. We spend a lot of time really developing a capacity and methodology to do it. William and I have been playing together for 16 years. When you play that long with somebody, things take on a life of their own. It is same process whether you are doing it with a piano or not. You are still solving musical problems. Let’s just say that there is a guiding gestured idea behind everything whether it is written down or not.

VR: What kind of idea?

MS: Like a gesture. It is discussed. Like "this section is going to be this, this color, this rhythm, this type of focus and we want to go there. " That is known at the least.

VR: Can you tell us a little about your latest release Pastoral Composure?

MS: I am curating this Blues Series on Thirsty Year. They are going to start a jazz line and they asked me to run it. I have recorded a lot of in this decade. I have about sixteen albums in an eight-year period. I kind of intended to take a hiatus but Thirsty Year asked me to curate this series and they asked me to start out the series with the first album. I could not turn down the opportunity to be a producer of a whole series and other people’s albums. So I did another album even though I intended to chill out for a while. The album is kind of a departure for me. I had to create an new form by taking aspects of the modern music that I have been a part of and inserting it into a more traditional thing. Even though there’s always aspects of traditional music in my playing. With this new album, there is more of focus of the non-traditional themes within the traditional form.

VR: You can see that on DNA, where there are versions of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and "Amazing Grace".

MS: Right. I have always been involved with that but I think I am even doing it more now. It is the first album that I have done with a drummer in a while. I have been doing a bunch of chamber albums, duos, string trios and stuff. This the first quartet album with a drummer that I have done in years.

VR: Is that difficult?

MS: No. Actually after doing all this chamber stuff, it’s quite easy.

VR: So at least you still get to take somewhat of a hiatus and chill out.

MS: Right.

VR: What’s next in the Blues Series?

MS: The next album will be William Parker with a reed player named Daniel Carter and Hamid Drake on drums. After that, the violinist Mat Maneri will have a quartet with William Parker and Gerald Cleaver. Craig Taborn will be playing piano, the pianist from James Carter band. After that Craig Taborn will have a trio album with Gerald Cleaver and bass player, Chris. Those are the four albums for this year.

VR: Do you consider Cecil Taylor one of your influences?

MS: Actually, not really. He is an influence in the fact that if you decide not too play straight ahead. He’s a model of someone who created a music that is not straight ahead. As far as the actual content of my playing, I don’t consider him an influence at all. Even though I listened to him very closely.

VR: You played with Roscoe Mitchell (multi-instrumentalist for the Art Ensemble of Chicago). How was that?

MS: It was a great experience being in the Roscoe Mitchell & the Note Factory. To me, the biggest part of the learning experience is that there actually is a different feeling between mid-West based musicians and New York based musicians. I am really partial to the New York school, so having to adjust my style to a different concept was a great learning experience for me.

VR: What is the difference between the two camps?

MS: I would say that it is more of a pulse thing. I think that the pulse that is emitted from New York players might be more intense.

VR: Henry Rollins produced some of your albums. What do you think of Black Flag?

MS: I love Damage. I love that album.

VR: How do punk and jazz share traits?

MS: I think at its best, jazz is "fuck you music". I think that is what they share. They share a similar energy. To me, jazz is at its best, when it has completely gone against the status quo. Of course, we want to all get accepted and make money. I think the energy from jazz has to be outlaw energy or it is just not vital. It shares the same "fuck you" attitude as punk if it is good. If you are trying to conform, you might as well forget it.

VR: What do you do when you are not playing music?

MS: I am a big boxing fan. I am actually a big professionally wrestling fan.

Although not the perfect soundtrack for body slams, check out Matthew Shipp’s latest releases on Thirst Ear Recordings, DNA and Pastoral Composure.