Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Rites and Rituals of Matthew Shipp: An Interview

Pianist-composer Matthew Shipp is one of the leading lights of contemporary improvised music, and perhaps one of the most well-known figures in recent avant-garde music. A harmonic inventor and deeply spiritual player, Shipp's longtime association with tenor saxophonist David S. Ware (1949-2012) helped to put both players in the spotlight at a time when free music received little mention among the jazz press. Shipp was born December 7, 1960 in Delaware and studied at the New England Conservatory with Ran Blake and in Philadelphia with Dennis Sandole. Coming onto the New York scene in the late 1980s, Shipp has recorded frequently as a leader in solo, trio and duet contexts for labels such as Rogue Art, Hat Hut, FMP, Silkheart, Cadence, 2.13.61, No More Records and Thirsty Ear (for which he enjoys a curatorial status). His current trio features bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey, and Shipp's latest solo recording Piano Sutras is out in September on Thirsty Ear. This interview was conducted under the auspices of the New York City Jazz Record in July 2013, and what follows is the full text.

Shipp and I had recently been communicating about a piece he wrote on Keith Jarrett for former Rolling Stone editor Michael Azzerrad's online magazine The Talkhouse, so the interview begins in that setting.

All photos are courtesy Peter Gannushkin.

Let’s start with the Jarrett thing.

[MS laughs]

Well I think it says what it needs to say; to be honest, why I did that – I got approached by The Talkhouse to do a review and they actually wanted me to review Questlove’s new book, but I just didn’t feel connected to it enough, so they said ‘pick a new release’ and I’d seen the story about Jarrett’s recent performance at Umbria. I just can’t take the idea that somebody – I’ve heard what he gets paid, so that somebody would take money like that and go and abuse the audience, you know there are so many people who would love to have that gig, and so many musicians are out here starving, so for somebody to be that much of a pig… I went overboard a little bit, but I was driven by that emotion.

I didn’t think it was overboard at all; it seems like the negative reactions to it are surprising because you’re known to be a candid person.

But honestly I have no bun in this fight. Jarrett doesn’t really interest me and I try to stay out of thinking too hard about him, you know.

Me too. But the Umbria thing brought it back into focus.

So the fact that people may take your statements and run with them, does it affect how you present yourself as a musician if controversy is stirred up?

That aspect and my music are two different things. I just felt that somebody needed to do something like that to shake people up a little bit. Jarrett and his behavior have been an issue since the ‘70s and now it’s 2013. It’s time for a whole different conversation and, as Ethan [Iverson] said, he takes up way too much real estate. I just felt like he’s a punk and needed to be put in his place, and if I could do my little part in that – and he is a punk, no doubt about it.

I’ve never had any interaction with him whatsoever.

Oh, me neither, but it’s obvious. I know plenty of people that have, and I’ve talked to plenty of people that have heard stories about him – oh ho.

Your fee for a trio is cheap by comparison probably.

That’s an understatement, but it’s not even that – who can think that they’re so precious that somebody can’t take a photo? I mean, come on. I think about how he acts – promoters have told me he’s gotten to try out more pianos than any concert pianist, and he’s griping about photos and they have no power in the business. It’s just like ‘get off of it.’

Jarrett is claiming that he is influenced – and he is to a degree – by the legacy of Bud Powell and the legacy of Bill Evans, but in terms of a spiritual connection to that music I feel like it’s –

Zero ­– absolutely none.

Yeah, and your work is certainly in that tradition and the connection is deeper or seems to be deeper.

Well, yeah, whatever – that’s the bottom line. If I can do my little part to spit in his face, I’ll do it.

Do you do much writing on your own apart from the Talkhouse piece?

I do sometimes, for myself – I don’t have much time but I definitely write. Everybody writes nowadays, but actually I write poetry to help myself try and understand my artistic process. I would never publish it of course.

Do you read much in terms of poetry?

Yes, I do.

Who do you read?

Now I read William Wordsworth a lot – any type of writer who is visionary and has a type of romantic mysticism, I’m interested.

I think you’ve mentioned William Blake before.

Yeah, he’s not my favorite as far as poets go, but I do like the concepts that are in Blake’s work. Actually, that really – Blake is one of my main people conceptually.

Yes, because he has this whole visual realm that’s connected to his writing.

And it takes certain Biblical concepts to a whole ‘nother realm.

Oh, totally, he’s far out.

And I’m definitely into subverting Christian symbols – that’s part of my thing.

I’ve gotten a very “linguistic” sense about your work and from my perspective it seems that you’re very interested in the particularities of language –

Oh completely and utterly, that’s my whole thing. The universe consists of pulsations and energy patterns, and these energy patterns then cohere into something we call a brain, which then intercepts energy patterns and makes them into patterns on an instrument. So the whole idea of playing music, to me, is a kind of metaphysics of how the brain generates rhythm and language, and that’s my whole thing. There is nothing else for me.

Now with regard to specific words or phrases – I notice you often use certain words like “vector,” and it seems like you put a lot of meaning into specific terms that you use, whether in interviews or in musical titles.

Well the titles come out of a specific philosophical backdrop that is the universe I’m trying to paint with the music. It’s where mysticism and science and mathematical patterning, or anything dealing with how pulsation and energy interact. That’s where the titles come from, the interactions between those things.

Is there a specific system that you use to structure language verbally?

No, no – I immerse myself in language and whatever comes out after the period of immersion is what comes out.

I’d like to follow this thread a little bit further; it seems like in this music there are those who are very strict in terms of how language is used to describe their work and how they also use language to structure experience, and there are those who let the work out into the world without very specific tracking.

Well, I am not trying to control how people view what I do at all. They can use whatever words they want. All I can do is try and paint my picture, and everybody else takes it into the nervous system and it becomes whatever it becomes. I have no desire to control the image of what I do other than I have my say about what I’m trying to do. So I think for me what makes it fun are the various interpretations other people have; they take it into their system and they see something there that I never saw before. I might be like ‘oh wow, I see that too.’ It might make a new neural connection for me if someone interprets something in a completely different way than I intended or saw it or perceived it myself.

It seems like it’s often a struggle; I think of Anthony Braxton putting a very codified language system in with the music that can be daunting to some. I think when you encounter the work as “the work” a lot of those complexities fall away.

Well, they should – I think in his case, you listen to it and you get whatever you’re going to get out of it, and I think he’s trying to elicit certain things from the performers and that’s about not presenting a system, it’s about getting improvisers to stretch their imaginations.

And he’s also related to a certain approach within Black Intellectualism that is quite complex on his part, I believe.

Yeah, I don’t know many Black Intellectuals – he doesn’t relate to a lot of specific traditions that I can think of. He’s his own brand of person and he’s a very interesting guy. On one level you can look at him as a street kid from Chicago who developed this whole elaborate thing, and the thing about him is that it’s all very honest and heartfelt and has integrity for that reason, and whether someone buys into every aspect of it or not, it doesn’t matter. It is for real and it represented a certain period of the music that was extremely fresh – his whole persona was extremely fresh and vibrant and helped to define that era [the 1970s]. You know, he came out of the AACM but went his own route, so for that reason it shows that a movement can foster many different visions. It’s interesting if you look at the Vision Festival and some of the artists that are associated with that, they’re all very different people. So you see that in the AACM also, where Braxton’s so different from Roscoe Mitchell, who’s so different from Henry Threadgill. They’re all such completely different personalities. The geographical proximity is
what really put them together.

And you had a stint with Roscoe, too, which gave you some idea of that, although it’s one small node in your overarching work.

I’ve always been a big fan of Roscoe since I was a kid and it was really cool to work with him. But it was definitely different than working with David [Ware] or someone with an East Coast – I don’t want to say energy thing, but there’s a different set of approaches to the music. It was challenging because I’m more used to East Coast energy playing, and while someone who doesn’t listen to a lot of this music might find it all the same, it’s definitely not. It is a different type of playing.

I haven’t listened to as much AACM music recently as I used to – it used to be something I gravitated towards heavily – but as my interest arc has shifted, that hasn’t been in as much rotation. When you say East Coast energy music, it’s funny – I don’t put your music in that category.

Well, it’s not at all – it’s funny, I say that and I do relate to a certain tradition though I don’t play energy music at all in any way whatsoever.

There is energy.

Yes, but I don’t do that. For lack of a better way of looking at it, and I don’t mean this directly, but you could say Andrew Hill meets Bill Evans – and it’s just not energy music, it doesn’t follow that tradition. It’s more a metaphysical but heartfelt emotion.

And even the work with David Ware, there’s a lot of density but it’s patterned in a different way.

Well David was an iconoclast and an eccentric who had his own complete vision, so his thing took from energy music but it was definitely David Ware music. It took from aspects of Sonny Rollins’ universe, Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s universe, some aspects of what the Coltrane Quartet did, but it was really a product of David’s time.

As your own music was being structured – not in its infancy, but more recently – how did that sphere of influence work?

Well, I was always conscious of keeping it different than David’s music, and how do you do that? Well, it’s piano trio music so it’s different without having him because he’s such a big personality. I was – he doesn’t like syncopation. He always wanted rolling sound behind him like a river; I don’t want to say post-Pharoah Sanders but for lack of a better way of characterizing it, he always seemed to me to be somebody that was like Pharoah in the sense that he came out of a certain tenor tradition, though Pharoah’s whole thing is that he actually played with Coltrane, and David’s thing is that he’s a whole new generation.

But he did always want a rolling, river-like sound behind him and whenever I would start syncopating he would look at me in rehearsal and be like “man, don’t do that. We don’t want no jazz here.” In my own music I think I’m far more involved with trying to link it up with a piano trio tradition. Whether it’s what happens in a Bud Powell group or a Bill Evans group – I’m not trying to do that but I’m relating to that tradition. I think that happens in my thing way more than it did with David, because he wanted an ocean of sound.

You’re more pointillistic, or it seems to me that you are. There are seeds or germs or very micro-phrases.

Yeah, my own thing is much more modular than what David did, or even what I did when I was in the rhythm section of his band.

But you’ve had groups with saxophonists, like with Rob Brown.

Well I was playing with Rob before I worked with David. That’s the thing about working with somebody for sixteen years, with a really dominating personality – I tend to want my own thing to be really completely different.

It’s like Jimmy Lyons apart from Cecil.

Right, right. But I have done stuff with Sabir Mateen, Evan Parker, Ivo Perelman – though with Ivo it’s really his group. With Evan Parker, it’s usually a duo. John Butcher I’ve played with in that way also.

I wanted to talk more about your work than David’s, but the end of that particular group, and I know it’s tough – it would be interesting to talk a bit about the Ware Quartet.

Well, I’ll say a couple things about him. Firstly, he didn’t listen to music at all – David basically was just putting stuff on the radio when he was driving and just check it out, but not beyond that.

I remember Cooper-Moore saying at the funeral that David would have rather been listening to Beyoncé than the free music that was being played.

[chuckles] Really? About the end of the group, he didn’t want to break up the quartet but I was starting to feel like my career couldn’t go any further if I was still seen as David S. Ware’s pianist. I just – he was getting weird towards the group’s end, and we had a very complex relationship. We were very close and we had a deep abiding connection. He understood me and I understood him on a very profound level, but there was that sense that – not that he was a parent to me – but there was that sense where you need to leave and establish your own thing, and I had an identity but I had to make clear that this was what I am about. I didn’t want to be seen as someone else’s pianist. It became clear without me saying anything to him and he did try to really strong-arm me to not leave, because he felt good that he had a group together that really understood him and were there for him. That was a big deal, and his whole thing was about commitment and having like-minded people together. The commitment and trust would generate whatever was generated.

The only fluctuation was with drummers, I’m sure because of various reasons.

He was very rough on drummers – they didn’t last. He was rough on Susie, and it was a very unfortunate situation. It got personal; there was a lot of stuff that went on with her leaving the group and it actually got ugly. Toward the end he and Guillermo had this blowout and it got so nasty – I pretended I was asleep because I didn’t want to deal with what they were saying. It was just too deep.

But he’s tough – and his group after that, Muhammad Ali was his elder so he wasn’t going to do anything. Muhammad’s crazy anyway. You’re not gonna mess with him, he’s really out. He’s the authentic thing and I think David would have had a different relationship with someone that had played with Frank Wright or Coltrane. It’s a different thing.

I experienced what he put drummers through in rehearsal; he never bothered William and I. David really spent a lot of time with Beaver Harris, who was a mentor to him, and he always had a specific idea of what drummers should be doing in the music. He never treated them equally, whereas with William and I he did treat us as equals in terms of what the rhythm section did. The drummer was never like that. Even with Marc Edwards, whom he grew up with – and he didn’t say stuff to him like he did to the others, because they were peers.

That’s interesting because I figured there was some credence to the revolving door aspect, but also it kind of was what it was.

Well, each one lasted quite a while.

The dissolution of that quartet, I didn’t realize it fell a lot on your divergent interests too.

It was my wanting to leave and he and Guillermo not getting along, and William was getting famous on his own and less available. And then Patricia [Nicholson Parker] came up with the idea that the gig at the Vision Festival was the last gig of the group, and David went along with it but he thought it was a gimmick. I was like, ‘yeah okay, cool.’ So we did the concert and then he called me up for another gig and said ‘we can’t do that’ and he said ‘oh, I thought it was just a gimmick for the festival.’ He was actually upset about it then. David’s an interesting cat, though – did you ever interview him?

No, we never met personally. I had my own struggles with the quartet’s music as someone getting into free music, how I dealt with the music at that time – it took me a while to appreciate what David’s quartet was about.

Well you’re not the first person to say that.

I also want to be fair and say that I grew to really love his music, but his playing took me a while to appreciate.

Don’t worry, I know plenty of people who absolutely hate his playing and never grew to like it, and I know people that really like William or me but can’t deal with him but can listen to the quartet anyway. I know people that really love David and can’t deal with William or me, and I’ve seen it all – every permutation.

When I first heard that music I was coming to it from punk music, as well as listening to Coltrane and Ayler. The variant I first heard was with Susie who I didn't latch onto at the time, but I tried to be respectful and listen.

My wife hated Susie – not because I was on the road with her or anything, but she just didn’t like her drumming at all. It was a funny and pointed criticism she had; whatever you think of her drumming, and it’s not because of her, I think Godspelized [DIW, 1996] is one of David’s best albums. I don’t think it has anything to do with one person – it just happened to be great.

Whatever people you put into the equation, they’re hopefully going to produce some great work as well as some that doesn’t quite hit.

Speaking of Susie, I saw that Derek Bailey book by Ben Watson, and Bailey was really crazy about her. It was kind of funny to read that.

He also liked to have someone contrary in the group and chose people based on that.

He’s an interesting character – a universe unto himself.

Anyway, my appreciation of David’s work came later and now going back to recordings I wasn’t as into, I enjoy them and it requires being in a certain place to pick up on things.

Flight of I [DIW, 1992] is one of my favorites because it had such a new energy to it, and Godspelized and Cryptology [Homestead, 1995] in a different way.

I liked Whit in the group. As a drummer now he’s par excellence – it’s hard for me being on the outside to notice improvement or gauge it, but I think now he’s really amazing.

Well, the situations he’s in, he fits well. He’s not a drummer’s drummer. He has trouble playing unless he’s comfortable with the people and the situation. When he is comfortable, he's a genius of course.

Is that why he was out of the scene for a while?

He’s crazy and we had a long flight and tour with David’s group, and he was just not coping with the road. A bunch of stuff happened and he just wasn’t together at the time. He has a lot of personal eccentricities that didn’t work well with that situation, and his playing suffered as a result. He had physical problems, too. He feels comfortable with me because we’re friends and I can put up with him.

His playing just sounds so full with the trio – it gave me a new appreciation for him. I always thought he was good but to hear him now…

He’s grown a lot recently. He’s worked really hard the last few years to fill out his playing. He’s always working on things.

He has his own sound, for sure.

Yes, he’s one of a kind, definitely.

L-R: Whit Dickey, Matthew Shipp, Michael Bisio

So as far as how you conceive of the trio versus solo work, is it fair to say they are of a piece?

Yeah, they’re completely interrelated in that it’s all an unfolding of my universe, but I guess that where they’re not related is that with the trio, even if I’m playing solo at a session, I’m always thinking of interacting with [Michael] Bisio – in the back of my mind, it’s wrapping lines around the bass player.

You tend to break up the trio on recordings – on Elastic Aspects [Thirsty Ear, 2012] there were solo pieces for Bisio and Dickey. It seems like your conception of the trio is that you give that much space to the other players and that there are specific compositions for them to play solo or duet. Rather than a strict soloist and rhythm in the piano tradition, it seems structured in a different way.

When you’re solo it just takes on a whole different way of unfolding. But all the different aspects of my universe feed all the other aspects. I like to go between all of it at different times, even subconsciously when you’re sleeping at night ­– what you did solo changes what you do in trio at a later date. There is a very specific thing when a solo piece is unfolding that only happens then.

I grew up with piano trios because my dad is a pianist, avocationally anyway, and really likes the pretty straight ahead stuff. Stanley Cowell, Joe Sample, Hal Galper, Jarrett – and that was my introduction to the music, which I of course turned away from before coming back to it later on my own. I wanted something more robust and obviously expressive. As far as the amount of harmonic depth that’s available from those three instruments –

It’s endless. I don’t know what everybody is doing in the format, as there are some obvious groups that I probably haven’t listened to that I should have. I love Jason Moran’s trio – I love seeing them live. I really like Nasheet Waits and Taurus Mateen – that’s a great unit.

And you come from a rock background to some degree as far as listening goes. With the piano trio as an idiom – and I came from a rock background or a punk background – I find it difficult to wrap my brain around the way in which rock or pop is used as a fulcrum to operate an improvising group. I’m thinking of groups like The Bad Plus or EST. To me it’s frustrating, but you might have a different insight on that.

No, not really. My trio music isn’t based on that so I’m not trying to be postmodern, I’m just trying to use the talents of the people I have and do something interesting. It’s pretty simple. I can’t – other than the fact that I tend to play with people who completely fetishize and love the jazz tradition, and I can definitely say that about Whit Dickey and Michael Bisio or William Parker and Gerald Cleaver, the people who have been in recent trios of mine have a very strong connection to the whole jazz idiom, probably stronger than the people who talk a lot about tradition. The people I play with actually seem to me to love and know the tradition more, despite the fact that they don’t wear it on their sleeves. So you know, even though I have talked a lot about getting away from tradition in the past, paradoxically everything we do comes from complete love for and absorption in the jazz tradition.

Of course. Every time I’ve listened to one of your records, it’s clear to me. And you can’t escape tradition if you are doing this music – it’s there.

No, you can’t escape history – whatever you do, history informs and shapes you and your concept. Maybe to some degree you can push something somewhere, because all of our brains are unique structures of nature you can’t even play a lick like somebody else did, even if you’re expert at copying somebody what you’re doing is different by the nature of your brain chemistry. So all that’s to say that you can’t escape history because it presses down and weighs on you, the whole history of the universe, and it is also – I don’t want to say it’s moving forward because it’s not going anywhere, it just IS – but it is now.

It provides a lot of opportunities.

Yeah, exactly – it provides opportunities to be in the now, whatever that is.

Perhaps at this point we should discuss your solo work.

Well, I would like to get across the idea that there’s an ecstatic and sensual and all-engrossing aspect to playing solo piano that is a complete experience and I revel in the challenge of that. I don’t show that in the way like Jarrett moans, but it’s an all encompassing, ecstatic experience to relate to this inanimate alphabet and object called the piano. It’s the earth, it’s made out of ivory and wood and metal, and the harp aspect of it has been translated into an encoded alphabet.

So you are thinking along the lines of sacred harp music.

Right, and it’s an all-encompassing thing to relate to the instrument, and I would hope to relate that to the solo album, being involved with that tradition. Paradoxically, Keith Jarrett is a part of that tradition and he has explored the idea of naked improvisation at the piano.

And he’s recorded sacred music – he’s done it whether you like it or not.

That’s a great tradition whether it’s Scott Joplin doing solo music from an African American experience in a melting pot with European forms, or Art Tatum coming completely from outer space, which Tatum is an outer space cat – he came and he left and nobody really figured out where he was coming from. Or Cecil Taylor in Air Above Mountains, Silent Tongues and Indent, which were being done about the same time as Jarrett started coming around, and those are absolute polar opposites. They all relate to something of a naked dealing with the instrument.

And if you talk about ritual, Cecil is completely dealing with that.

Yes, he’s dealing with the visual aspect of it. The piano’s possibilities are not limited and everybody’s mind is structured differently, so each mind brings a different wrinkle to the equation, so it is great to be part of dealing with that tradition in my own way.

In terms of the arc of your work, where does Piano Sutras fit in?

I’m not sure that I know about that; I like to think there is an evolution, and when I listen to Symbol Systems [No More Records, 1995] – it’s going to sound like I’m bragging but I view that in terms of an artistic whole in itself, and I feel it is one of my strongest CDs. I don’t know if there’s evolution as far as maybe it’s always changing and reflecting back on itself. I haven’t listened to Before the World [FMP, 1997] in a long time and I don’t even remember what’s on that one, but people tend to see that as germinating my other work, but they kind of see that as a marker. Destination:Out did a piece on it and what they said is kind of what I’m trying to get out. 4D [2010] and One [2008], those are my Thirsty Ear solos along with this one, and it might come to me in five years when I’m sitting and watching TV and think “oh yeah, that’s where that fit in” – but I don’t know. That’s for other people to figure out. One was definitely a very specific mindset going into it, so that is somewhat different from the others.

It’s true, the solo tradition has a separateness from the trio tradition or the duets, which I’m particularly a fan of.

That’s funny – a lot of people aren’t. When you tell a label that you want to do a duet album they get a bit uncomfortable.

I’m always suggesting to people who want to put on concerts that that model is interesting – a real two-way conversation. I can see it as a hard sell but you’ve had some extraordinary ones.

Yeah, with William Parker, back in the day Zo did really well.

And the recent ones with Bisio and Darius Jones.

Yeah, they were kind of overshadowed by The Art of the Improviser [Thirsty Ear, 2011], but they got critical acclaim.

I remember we were talking at one point before and I brought up the Bill Evans connection pretty heavily, and it’s funny – years ago my ears might not have been tuned to that, but do you feel like your music has become more lyrical over time?

I’m getting older. My wife thinks what I do is way more lyrical than it used to be. A friend of hers told her, “oh you’ve been with him for so long that you can hear it now, whereas twenty-some years ago it was new to you.” But I think – I don’t think of Bill Evans as a lyrical player, and it’s funny that you mention him because I think he was concerned with all of the elements of music. Roscoe Mitchell used to say, “no matter what you do, you can’t escape the basic rules of music.” So whether it’s harmony, counterpoint, whatever you do you’re a servant to the rules of music and you can’t forget that. When I think of Bill Evans I think of somebody who’s trying to explore something deeper and he’s always trying to delve like a sculptor, he keeps chipping away. Therefore that doesn’t necessarily lead to lyricism in the way that people think of the word. It leads to something that might be lyrical but the attempt is at depth. When someone says you are playing lyrically, it may mean that you’re playing a singsong melody or that you’re trying to do something –

There’s a pejorative sense to the word that could be applied in that case.

Right, well, I do think of myself as a melodic player and I’m always trying to make the piano bleed melodic nuggets like I’m trying to mine for gold under the earth and take something out that can function as a brain wave or some unit of sensation, and hope that that conveys information. So for it to convey information it has to be melodic. When you say lyrical, you could be implying that I’m like Jarrett or George Winston.

The first few George Winston records aren’t bad!

I don’t have anything against George Winston, actually. I do have something against Jarrett. Winston has no pretenses.

Evans too, he gave a lot of space to other musicians. I have one recording from Ljubljana with Tony Oxley on drums –

Oxley’s on a Bill Evans record? What?!

Yeah, it’s from ’72, with Eddie Gomez on bass, and there’s quite a bit of room for Oxley to play solo [Live at the Festival, on Enja].

He probably didn’t like playing with him and just let him take it away.

It’s interesting that tension exists; and it seems like he was interested in giving large sections of music to people to explore.

Well I think with Bill Evans he was always interested in an integrated trio that was above and beyond the three members. That’s one of his great contributions; not that people didn’t do it before, but it was – I don’t think people thought that way. It was just a product of musicality but I think he really approached the whole thing from that standpoint.

I like what you’re saying too about the struggle – and stop me if I’m misconstruing your language – but that you’re pulling things out of the earth in a way, but it seems like a very quiet or a long term working of the material that’s very steady.

Oh yeah, I’m completely and utterly involved in that. The idea is to work the material over and over and over until it becomes instinct or second nature, and that just gives you more freedom to dig deeper because you’re not afraid of falling into the abyss. Even if you jump off, you know something will always generate itself instantly, and that’s what you practice – to have the reflexes interact with the conceptual ability to do that.

And the abyss itself can be rather interesting, so it is a thing.

The abyss in a way is God, it’s the self generation of structure out of wherever formlessness coheres into a form and all forms are temporary constructions of energy, but somehow energy comes out of the abyss and that is a vastness that you can never get to even though it encompasses – it’s in you and it is what you’re made of but you can never directly get. There’s a verse in the Bible that if you see God, you will die. So the abyss is everything because on one level we don’t do any of this – you move your finger and it happens, it’s all nature and spirit somehow. The music is a way to explore your relationship with nature and spirit. I’m not trying to sound mystical; I’m trying to talk about a real, pragmatic thing. The music gives us a device to explore.

I’ve read a fair share of pre-Socratics as well as recent American pragmatic philosophy, so what you are saying makes total sense.

You’re talking about William James?

More John Dewey, but James is interesting as well. I’m nuts about Dewey.

Oh yeah? My father is too; I’ve read very little, just some writing about education.

His Art as Experience is one of my favorite books – it’s great.

Yeah, I should check that out.

You come from a pretty spiritual background.

Oh yes, completely. I had a minister tell my parents when I was twelve years old that I was always going to be a troubled kid because – this is a priest saying this, mind you – because I was a religious fanatic, and it was problematic.

A religious fanatic at that age how?

Well I was obsessed with the Eucharist and that it, to me, if you actually believe that you’re ingesting the body and blood of Jesus Christ, that you’re actually in a certain sense – the crucifixion of Jesus is this event outside space and time, so every time you go through that rite, you’re reviving that field, that non-spatial or non-temporal field of activity.

So it’s a disconnect between temporality and non-temporal reality.

Right, right, and the fact that a field effect exists in that way. If you are really into it and you believe in that field effect as a reality – I was always just obsessed with that to the point that I used to steal wafers from the Church and I knew the whole service by memory because I was an altar boy, so I used to do it at home like a scientific experiment, trying to verify how the wafer and wine would transmute to the body and blood of Jesus Christ. So the whole idea of the Eucharist probably informs my music more than anything.

To follow that thread a little further, in terms of the music how does it translate? I suppose it would be because you’re dealing with making music temporally but sonically you are outside of time, that that may be the connection.

I think it has to do with the mundane being transported to a divine realm, and that’s what happens during the Eucharist when you have a wafer of bread and some grape juice or wine becoming the blood and body of a godhead, and you know, it’s some type of transcendence of the mundane. The anthropologist Mircea Eliade called it theophany, and it’s the breakup of the ontological construction of the world when you have some spirit enter into the mundane. At some level, that’s what happens when musicians play. Having gone through a religious background, it kind of gives you a feel for the shimmering dynamic of angst that goes along with religious symbology and a religious ritual. Therefore, the act of music becomes like a religious ritual.

Right. It’s funny because the ritual aspect seems specific to certain players and kinds of music; it’s not always going to be ritualistic in improvised music. You encounter people for whom it’s less codified by belief, just getting together to play.

And for some people it’s a highly intellectual thing.

Yeah, and that’s fine too. It doesn’t have to be spiritual or a cognitive investigation, either.

Right, and for some it’s a mixture of all of the above.

So how did this current trio come together? How do you choose players?

I prefer to never have to change personnel. It changed from William and Gerald because they’re both so busy, so I had to bring in people that don’t have gigs all the time.

Yeah, because Whit was kind of not coming up very frequently.

Mike and I had talked about playing for years, because we’ve been friends. He actually used to live above this coffee shop.

He was out west for a long time.

Yeah, he was in Seattle for years and years. We’d been talking about playing for a long time and it finally just happened, so I don’t know – when I have a group I try to keep it together forever.

So when you went away from the string trio was that a conscious decision?
Well, that wasn’t a working group – not really. I’ve done about twenty or thirty gigs over the years in that configuration, but it was never with any long tours. That was a special project and a very important one for me; I feel that group never got its due. The first album, By the Law of Music [Hat Hut, 1997] was highly critically acclaimed even though it wasn’t reviewed in DownBeat or any place like that. It got me on the cover of Jazziz – but that group was never really dealt with and I personally thought it was a very innovative group for its time period. I did a project with Ivo – Mat and I played with him and that’s coming out shortly. I did a string trio concert a couple of years ago in Maine at a festival, and in the future I would like to do that music completely improvised, because the two albums are all highly composed.

It is funny because this music seems to be at a point where it’s all very project-oriented and regular groups are almost an impossibility. Your group refutes that in a way – you don’t have thirty projects going on at once. I think it dilutes people’s work in a lot of ways to do that.

It’s survival – it’s tough out here now. It’s always been tough, but now it is extra-tough.

Is it harder for you to get US gigs?

The US has always been hard and Europe’s in a recession. Put that together and it isn’t pretty.

Would you say you’re working less?

I’m not sure; it feels that way, but there were periods this year when I was really busy. There are periods coming up – I have a gig in August and then September is really busy. It’s hard, because no matter what the overall situation is, you’re only one person within it and you may have all kinds of variables to deal with. It’s hard to assess what your situation is compared to the overall setting, because the overall can be good and you have a slow period for whatever reason. It’s difficult – it’s definitely difficult.

Moving here a year ago, one is inundated by a lot of performances but they’re all for the door.

Unless you’re playing the Jazz Standard or whatever, New York gigs are problematic. They’re good if you want to rehearse and develop the music, play a lot just to get a group sound together, but not as far as making a living.

You have to work outside of that or be independently wealthy.

I’m definitely not independently wealthy, I can tell you that!

Yeah, right – but you’re able to make a living.

Yeah, it’s funny because I run into people who see my name a lot and they think I’m rich. I’m like ‘whoa, baby – you don’t even know what I have to deal with.’

You have to be frugal and so forth.

I’ve definitely structured my living around knowing that I would have to make a lot of sacrifices to do this. I was aware of that from day one and you have to be willing to sacrifice a lot in order to make music.

Was there a time at which you thought about doing something else?

[laughs] Every day!

I mean, what about when you were younger?

No, I’ve always really felt this was the only thing I’m put on Earth to do. Some people may think I might have that conditioned to the point of it entering into being conceited, but I’ve always felt that I was a prophet put here to do this, period. I’ve never – even though there are periods where I think ‘aw God, why did I get myself into this,’ I never swayed from it.

How are you using the word prophet here?

In the sense of a religious calling, basically – it is a religious fervor for what you do.

But not in the sense of legacy – you’re not saying ‘I’m doing this and it will then set the stage for others to do this.’

No, I’m only saying that the spirit comes through me and requires me to do this – it’s a prophet in that sense. Or a priest, you could say.

That requires a certain sacrifice of living ascetically.

Yeah, it is ascetic – you’ve almost got to be like a monk.

I’m amazed at the sacrifices people make in order to do this.

I’m amazed too and I’m in the middle of it! But, you know, people have died to do this. I guess success is worth it, but once you get started, it’s hard to get off the train unless you’ve programmed yourself for getting off it and you give yourself an alternative. If you are that serious about it you tend not to give yourself alternatives. So, you’ve got to go where it takes you, and that’s a danger you have to be willing to put up with. It’s not pretty all the time.

You’ve had support in terms of being able to record and get the work out there, though, from pretty early on.

Yes, I’ve had a complete and utter support with that.

And you’ve got a tight relationship with labels like Thirsty Ear, too.

That’s true for my relationships with a bunch of labels – Not Two, Rogue Art, Hat Hut too, even though I haven’t recorded for them in years.

Hat Hut seems to be struggling now.

Oh yeah, the label is completely struggling. They used to have the backing of UBS, the Swiss Bank. Some guy on their board really liked the project and then that person left and a whole new generation of people came in and cut it out. Werner has never really recovered from losing that support. When he had it, it was really easy – when I recorded for him I was on a monthly salary. I can only think of a few musicians in that situation, like David Murray with DIW. Now that never happens, but when Werner lost his funding from the Swiss bank, that was that.

Thirsty Ear is special, though, because you still have an A&R aspect to your work with the label.

Yeah, exactly – and they are also struggling, though there is an infrastructure in place where they’ve done a lot of different things over the years, and there’s definitely a way to keep things afloat. But if you’re going to go by numbers, the label is dealing with the difficulties that we are all dealing with.

All these sacred labels are hurting; many musicians rightfully have some suspicions in dealing with “label business,” but even on the positive end of labels that have done some good, they are kind of screwed.

It’s really toxic what’s going on out here on so many levels. I think that if someone is actually focused on it, one could find a way to sell physical product, but someone would have to be crazily into proving their point and it would have to be a small group of things that are very, very focused. It would have to be taken as an art object, almost, and if someone was crazy enough they could do it. But nobody approaches it that way and once you start a label you have to deal with so much stuff; you tend to go through the usual routes and it always ends up with the same result.

I read today that digital sales are really tanking.

Yes, they are tanking and that’s not even filling in – that’s a product of pirating and people streaming on Spotify. If you can get your own playlist on your phone, why would you download from iTunes? It’s just so much stuff that’s taking away from the music here and there, and it’s been going on for so long that it’s just infecting the whole thing.

This music is extremely tangible and that requires a vessel to put it forward, whether that’s the musician or the concert or the recording as an object. I come from an art background and I like to look at cool stuff.

The other thing is that I don’t think it’s possible to – I have yet to see a jazz musician generate a personality or a career in the business that isn’t based on a physical album. You can’t do it on a YouTube video – nobody will take that seriously, at least with jazz. Sales of physical product or down, but that’s the only means for a jazz musician to have a personality within the broad context of the industry. There’s no other way. It’s just really bizarre, the whole thing.

It seems like if things keep going the way they are in terms of a lack of physicality for the medium, does that – I can’t imagine the music stopping, but what’s the transmission method?

I don’t know – it’s scary what’s going on. It’s a change in formats for the sake of being able to, and once technology starts dictating music, it’s over.

I’m an LP guy, I’ve never been a big fan of CDs, and my girlfriend is always like “why do you have all of these? You can listen to this on a computer.” A lot of people are like that; they don’t understand – they can’t conceptualize dealing with a tangible form of something.

I was with William Parker in RadioShack once and he bought a case to take CDs on the road. It was something you’d buy if you only had CDs, and this young guy behind the counter was just like ‘why don’t you just download music to your phone?’ and William was like ‘no, this is what I want’ and he was like ‘really?’ The kid was dumbfounded and it was funny to watch because they were talking about it and it kind of blew the kid’s mind.

I have music on my phone of course; I listen to stuff as best I can on the headphones, promos and stuff, which will last me until the actual physical edition comes out. I certainly understand the convenience of MP3s but I don’t actually feel like I have the music or that it’s in my orbit – I don’t connect to it unless it’s an object. It’s funny because music is an ephemeral thing and you can’t have a container for something that isn’t physical, so that is another semantic problem right there.

But it helps bring the worldview into focus that the artist was trying to convey, rather than having it on your phone. As Dolphy said “once you hear music in the air it’s gone. You can never capture it again.”

Right, although that statement itself was recorded and put on an album.

A lot of my promos are digital and I have to hassle people for physical copies – it’s not cheap to provide them, but writers aren’t getting paid anyway. I don’t experience music on MP3 like I do on a stereo and if I’m going to try to say something about the work, it needs to be fully experienced. It’s very strange.

Jazz has always been hard and it always will be. There’s just not a place for it in society – there is theoretically but practically people just aren’t wanting to deal with the realities the music presents.

On that note, you seem fairly comfortable with the word Jazz.

Yeah, I’m not into this BAM thing that Nicholas Payton is pushing.

Bill Dixon would always call it ‘this music’ or ‘Black Music’ and I tend to say ‘this music a lot,’ though I think it’s because I’ve been conditioned by some of my peers and heroes.

Well here’s the thing: I think musicians have had problems with the word, and Duke Ellington didn’t want to be called a jazz musician for example. The problem comes when someone tries to own a word, and for somebody like me, I just want to do what I want to do, get my credit cards paid off and get health insurance. I don’t have the energy to deal with semantics – people don’t have a concept of what the music’s about anyway, so if you change the word every time it just makes things harder for people. At this point I just want to ride it out and get paid for what I do, and it just becomes irrelevant to focus on that for me. That being said, I just want to play and pay my bills. That’s what it comes down to.

I respect that completely, as much as – or as important as it is to get a handle on the meaning behind the work and the structure of the experience –

That’s beyond language anyway; whatever you call it doesn’t matter. Any profound experience you have will be beyond language.

Well, I think of it like a vessel for a recording; words are objects to convey experience and you have to have something like that to move the experience forward. What you do with it or how you relate to it – there will always be frames and as a writer I have to give them some credence.

I do, and to me a word is a lettered construction and if you’re looking for my music, you go to the jazz section of the store and buy it. It’s a word that encompasses so much; when you can take a word and put Buddy Bolden, Jeff Beck, Douglas Ewart, Marcus Roberts and myself into that word, it’s obviously amorphous. People know from the word what it signifies, even though the people I just mentioned are very different.

In a sense that’s generative, that’s positive.

I agree.

Coming from a pretty heavy art historical background, visual artists hate to be a part of any movement or specific verbal structure.

But they don’t mind being called artists.

Right, true.

And that’s just a construction of letters – what does that mean? Jackson Pollock is an artist and so is Lady Gaga.

July 27, 2013


"The point where the letter and the Spirit of the tradition meet is the Matthew Shipp Trio. Clifford, you ask how our concepts mesh, I can start by telling you there are very few, not even a handful, of other artists I feel so absolutely in tune with. Conceptually I think our mentors fostered very similar aesthetics: to know what was, find your own voice, and if possible, move this music forward (my words, not trying to speak for anyone else). We never had to choose between being a jazz musician or a creative one. They are the same thing! The neoists of the 1980's really bastardized this by only championing the most institutionalized aspects of the music, the reaction to it although necessary was as damaging, in many instances the abandonment of the ideals of this music, even going as far as referring to it by "the j word," ridiculous, especially in light of the fact that this music is all inclusive. Add to that the fact that there are certainly charlatans in this and every other music it's no wonder many people turn their backs on it.

"One of the more gratifying compliments we hear at MS3 concerts (always spoken by someone dragged there by a friend) goes something like: I didn't even think I liked this music until I heard you guys!

"Wow, what could be better!? This is a testament to Matthew's ability to pull together all the elements of this music and present it in a manner that is inclusive, inviting and warm. Matt's musicianship, artistry and drive are certainly inspirational on many levels but as I am writing this it has suddenly dawned on me that he inspires me to believe in me."

Thanks Matt
Michael Bisio
August 2013

"I am not sure of the date that I met Matthew Shipp but what struck about him was he was very serious about music and about his participating in it. I met and spoke to him way before I actually played with him. What he was doing musically and mystically was very deep; I am still getting into it but I immediately felt his music – to me that is the most important thing.

"When I was playing hours and hours of free creative open ended improvisation, the concept of universal harmony was developed that allowed any tones to support and go along with [other] tones both rhythmically and harmonically. This included the concept of making up chord changes on the spot and each time a piece of music would change both rhythmically and harmonically. Matthew is constantly working on his music trying to find the correct formulas both rhythmically and harmonically that will change the world." – William Parker in communication, August 2013

“I was introduced to Matt in 1984 through Chris Rich, who mentioned him as someone I should meet. What struck me the most about him was his encouragement and conviction. You have to remember, at that time there was a lot of bullshit on the scene in New York then, and Matt wasn’t afraid to call it out when he saw it. I wouldn’t want to pick apart his playing in particular, but I will say that Matt had (and has) a really great sense of how to make form in improvisation. He tells a story or creates bits of pieces of stories that he puts into long form improvisations. He’s a great performer and can deliver every night, consistently. He is more harmonically based than people might think, and he’s very original in how he expresses himself as himself. Free music is about invention as opposed to strict traditions, and Matt has really invented the way to sound like Matt.” – Joe Morris in conversation, August 2013

"Matt lets the harmonics collide and shock one another in midair, creating an orgy of sounds. He’s such a brilliant dude, and he’s picking up on what I’m doing, leading me on or replicating what I do. If Matt could perform exercises as such, he would – with the piano you’re stuck to the tempered notes. The most you can do is brilliantly help them with your pedals, and that’s what he does. Matt is also very meticulous and a methodical musician; lately we’re talking about these studies as a side conversation, not as a game plan. He was telling me that he has been studying the Bach chorales very seriously, and he just finished that so he’s very excited." – Ivo Perelman in conversation, January 2013

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