The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Outside Music Inside Voices: Dialogues on Improvisation and the Spirit of Creative Music

Garrison Fewell
(Saturn University Press; Somerville, Massachusetts)


Matthew Shipp                                                                                ©2014 Luciano Rossetti/Phocus Agency

Matthew Shipp: Generating Force

Garrison Fewell: How do you define spirituality, and what is the importance of spirituality, or an awareness of consciousness, in the development of your creativity?

Matthew Shipp: Well, how I define spirituality is that obviously, if we exist, or anybody exists, there’s some animating force that allows you to exist. So, spirituality to me is reverence to whatever that animating force is, however you define it or whatever you call it. That’s what spirituality is to me. You can take away all the religious connotations from that and just use the word “generating force” or think of it in those terms. My assumption is that consciousness is all, and anything can be geared down to consciousness. I don’t believe in material things at all. I don’t believe that there are chemicals and they bounced together and life started. I believe that consciousness was the base element and other things came into existence after that. So if you actually believe that, then there is nothing else, there is no other realm to be interested in other than whatever the base realm is, which to me is consciousness. So that’s what spirituality is – that’s all that exists. There is nothing else to be absorbed in.

Fewell: That’s a beautiful description, “generating force.” I appreciate how you remove the word “religion” from spirituality, and the idea of consciousness as the base element. Our material existence then, is a manifestation of consciousness in temporary form.

Shipp: Right.

Fewell: How has the development of your inner self influenced your skills as a creative artist?

Shipp: I think that the development of a spiritual base is everything. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as music, if you want to go that far. What is music? It’s sound patterns that you play by pressing down keys on an instrument. At the end of the day, it’s vibration that coheres matter. The study of vibration is, to me, everything. I guess the way it affects my “music” is that whatever I do on my instrument is a manifestation of who I am, my thought processes, my worldview, and that all stems from an exploration of consciousness. On a vibrational level, I don’t believe that there’s any distinction between anything. It’s all vibration that, from whatever density, coheres in different ways. At that level there’s no difference between music, walking down a street, eating a meal ... it’s all some type of meditational thing geared towards whatever the generating force is that lets you do anything. On a base level – well, not even on a base level, maybe on a fourth-dimensional level, there’s just no differentiation between human activity and activities in general. On that level, the music is like an exploration of whatever the essence of who I am is, and it’s related to whatever electromagnetic vibrational forces allow me to do what I do. It’s a language of that sort, and it’s all related to the exploration of base consciousness. So I don’t even know if there is such a thing as music!

Fewell: Music is sound, is vibration, which is consciousness manifested through vibration, right? That’s like the non-dualistic nature of life, the oneness of subjective and objective realities, neither spirit nor matter, yet both. The ultimate nature of phenomena, or pure consciousness, is mystic – it lies beyond intellectual concepts such as existence or nonexistence.

Shipp: Exactly, exactly.

Fewell: Beautiful, thank you. Have you experienced healing powers of improvisation or creative music, either spiritual or physical?

Shipp: Have I experienced healing directly? Yes. I intuit that anything you can take into your system, if the intent is for it to be that, then it can happen. I saw an instance where a guy and his wife befriended David S. Ware years ago, and the guy swore that David’s music had created this miraculous physical cure in his life. The thing is, it’s a meditation, it’s a focus, so anything that’s a focus, if the intent is tuned a certain way and it’s there, it can become that for the particular individual. Music is a meditational point for some people; for some people it’s just an exercise to listen, or they listen to it, they intellectually get something out of it, or don’t get anything out of it. For other people, it touches them at a very deep level, and then it can change you. But that’s dependent on your openness to be changed. The music has that potential, but when somebody listens, it depends on their intent and their openness for those things to happen.

Fewell: I like the way you describe it, that if the intent is there, then it can happen. I think that frames the question in a very precise way.

Shipp: Right, right. You know there are many cultures where shamans have used drums for certain initiation and certain rites, and I definitely do believe that if the belief and openness is there that rhythm and vibration can change people on a cellular level. I definitely believe that personally.

Fewell: Yes, the function of music in many ancient cultures, just as you described, was an expression of consciousness and a way to connect the collective experience or collective consciousness through sound vibrations, and was definitely meant for healing.

What are your earliest memories of improvisation, and in what context or situation did you first begin free improvisation?

Shipp: Well, I guess my first memories of the process was seeing jazz musicians play when I was a kid. I remember on TV seeing Nina Simone and Ahmad Jamal. When you are a young person and you want to play jazz, especially if you come from a classical background, the first question you have is, “How do you improvise?” I mean, that’s what actually becoming a jazz musician engenders, that particular question. My first bumping up against the concept of improvisation is just that – there’s this phenomenon called jazz and when you think of what jazz players do, they improvise. And if you have a classical background, you’ve been sitting around reading music and going about it that way, then all of a sudden there’s this whole new thing that you wanna try to do, and you have no concept of what it really is at first. When most people think of that word [improvisation], they think of making something up out of thin air, which we all know is not possible. There’s a methodology and a whole study behind being able to create things in real time. It’s not necessarily the hocus-pocus magic that somebody with no background in it at all might think it is. Albeit, there is magic involved in the process and sometimes subconscious things happen that you don’t know where they came from. To answer the question, my first memory of the whole concept [of improvisation] was just that: wanting to be a jazz musician, and that is the preeminent question you have when you decide to become a jazz musician.

Fewell: And once that question emerged from your life, what process did you follow to become able to improvise beyond traditional forms?

Shipp: For me it was just a matter of being immersed in it all the time. First of all, I was open to a lot of different music. Luckily in Delaware, where I grew up, they had some good record stores, and in Philly, which was twenty minutes away, there was Third Street Jazz – one of the greatest record stores ever. I used to listen to WRTI in Philly, late at night playing Sun Ra and all kinds of stuff. I was interested in the whole spectrum of music. Even though I went about learning jazz in a pretty traditional way, I was attracted to some of the “outer music” from the beginning and knew I would end up there probably. I actually at first didn’t know where I would end up, but I was fascinated enough by what’s called “free jazz” that I knew there was a chance I would end up there. I was just immersed in all the language, all day, all the time.

Fewell: I read that you went to Berklee College of Music, is that right?

Shipp: For a summer semester, yeah.

Fewell: When you were there did you happen to meet other musicians who were into creative music and improv?

Shipp: Yeah, yeah, I did. There was a drummer there named Frank Benbera. When I first moved to New York, he was my roommate for a couple of months and he was into the full spectrum of the music. The people I jammed with the summer I was at Berklee, when we were in the midst of our sessions, kind of playing everything, bebop and some funk things, we were trying to stretch out also and do more modern things.

Fewell: Do you have any specific routines or practices, whether physical or metaphysical, that you use to sustain and expand your creativity?

Shipp: I meditate. I can also do some slight out of body things ... but I meditate.

Fewell: Is that a daily practice?

Shipp: Yes.

Fewell: How does it go when you’re traveling, when you are on tour?

Shipp: It can be difficult. It helps if you have a quiet hotel room to meditate. But being on tour, it cuts into everything. Just getting to the gig at night and putting food in your body is like a preeminent thing.

Fewell: For me, my daily practice of chanting keeps me from being distracted or pulled away by other things, so I can maintain my focus on what my role is that evening. In the morning I always manage to find time. At night it’s more of a challenge, like you say, with rehearsal, sound check, and dinner.

Shipp: When you get down to it, there is nothing else. Meditation is getting in touch with your gut essence inside, and what else is there? Everything else is just the chaos of this world out here, which you’re here with twenty-four hours. I don’t see how you cannot do it – it’s all that matters.

Fewell: Have you encountered any obstacles, resistance, or criticism in your pursuit of creative improvised music?

Shipp: That’s a hard question to answer because there are criticisms to every course of action in human history from some quarter. If you’re talking about any type of jazz or modern music, at some point you will experience criticism. Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor were beat up because of the music they played or who they were. They hurt Cecil’s hands, waiting for him after a gig. Luckily I come from an understanding family that even if they don’t always 100 percent get what you’re doing, they’re supportive of the idea that you’re pursuing something that means something to you. They know that if somebody is really serious, you can’t stop somebody from doing something that’s in them. So I’ve never had family or physical problems like getting beat up. There’s skepticism, and you feel that from various quarters, whether it’s people who are just into straight-ahead jazz and they have real problems with anything that steps outside of that, or people from within this music that have prejudice against European musicians. There are actually people in this part of the music who hate African Americans. I’ve experienced that. It comes in many forms and shapes. I’m not saying this because I’m Christian, I’m not, but if Jesus Christ came to Earth today, he’d be put to death again. There are objections to any and everything.

Fewell: That leads me to my next question: what positive roles do we play in society as improvising musicians, composing and performing creative music? Do you feel that collective improvisation makes a positive contribution to our culture?

Shipp: Improvisation is something inherent to the human psyche. It’s in the structural makeup of who we are, and if you have instruments, people are going to improvise. That’s the contribution that people in this community make – that has to be done. As far as collective improvisation, most of my work is in small groups. It’s a tailor-made sound towards the musicians in the group. I assume you mean large group collectives like Ascension or Ornette’s Free Jazz? Even though I’ve been involved in things like that, everything I do is in small groups and instrumentations that are very germane to jazz – trios, quartet. The whole thought process, even though it’s a more freer type of thing, the process is as if we were a regular jazz group.

Fewell: Are you aware of any differences in your approach when you improvise alone versus improvising with others?

Shipp: Oh, yeah. When you’re playing solo you control all the space-time and when you’re playing with others you don’t. I mean there’s two ways of going about it: you just keep doing what you’re doing and it works with the other people or it doesn’t; I know a lot of players like that. Or you actually try to keep your own individuality but meld into the environment in the proper way. Like Evan Parker, he’s a real master at fitting into different ensembles while keeping his own personality. Being an ensemble player, whatever the needs of the situation call for, you obviously somewhat tailor your playing to fit in with the personalities that you’re playing with.

Fewell: I’ve heard you play many times. I love watching you play. It’s as if your body mirrors your mind, and your movements are like a beautiful counterpoint to your music. Sorry for being so poetic...

Shipp: I’m in the realm of poetry, that’s all right!

Fewell: When I first met you at the Sant’Anna Arresi festival in Sardinia, I remember riding the minibus from the hotel to the workshops in the morning with William Parker, and you were always so enthusiastic – maybe that’s not the right word – you were very upbeat about everything. I’m just wondering, where does your naturally positive spirit come from?

Shipp: Well, that’s interesting to hear that, because the road can be so hard physically. Traveling I often look at myself as, not negative, but just dealing with the realities of being on the road. If somebody sees me on the road and says I’m positive, well, you know, it’s great to hear that because I surely don’t feel that way on the road a lot. I guess just being focused in the music, this being what I’m doing and it being a religious thing for me, I feel like a conduit to a certain language and frequency vibrations, and I feel that that’s a very serious undertaking. So I guess there’s always some type of prayer to the language field going on, and that allows me to take a religious reverb towards being able to be the one that manifests that. I guess that’s where that comes from.

Fewell: You had a long relationship with David S. Ware, playing in his quartet. The titles of his compositions contain many references to spirit, peace, wisdom, and the mystical aspect of life. In the liner notes to your recording The Trio Plays Ware, William Parker says, “Each song is encoded with the ancient mystery that has the ability to enlighten and uplift the soul when interpreted by the right players.” Could you share something about David’s spiritual approach or thinking in his music?

Shipp: David S. Ware. I’m not going to say he was a Hindu, but most of his reading and thinking definitely generated some kind of a Hinduistic type of thing. One of his later albums he has Ganesh on the cover. He did meditate. What was interesting about him, his mentality was one of atoning for something. He always felt he had some bad karma from previous lifetimes that he was dealing with and that just seemed to be an idea rooted in his subconscious mind very deeply. I never understood that because I don’t believe in original sin. I do believe in karma, but I do believe that you can rise above things. Anyway, his whole thing came out of his religious beliefs and he lived a life that was very austere and geared towards his belief system and how the music manifested out of that. It was kind of very similar in the spiritual basis to the whole Coltrane trip where universal consciousness is what generates music, and that’s what he came out of. When David and Sonny Rollins used to get together and play, Sonny was a vegetarian and he was reading the Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda, and David was very much of that, you know. We had some very serious talks about various belief systems and gurus and things. When I was younger I had a kundalini experience in Siddha Yoga and David knew a decent amount about Muktananda, who was the carrier of that tradition at the time. I was a student of Muktananda’s guru, Bhagavan Nityananda was his name, and David knew a lot about that. Then he was involved with Transcendental Meditation pretty heavily too. That was David’s life; he was really deeply involved with the mysteries of all that.

Fewell: I can hear that in David’s music. He played a powerful set at the Sant’Anna Arresi festival and I recall being fully engaged in his sound, andwith the sound of the quartet. At times, if I had to describe it, it was like being in the eye of a compassionate hurricane, or a radical cleansing of the spirit. David was ill and had difficulty walking, but he practiced every day. While everybody was relaxing by the pool after lunch, David was working out under the shaded canopy in one of the parking spaces. He faced away from the hotel, absorbed in his own world of sound. Even though he was struggling with illness, it was remarkable how patiently he worked at building strength, and his mastery of breath control was incredible. I just listened to Cryptology and the last two tracks, “Panoramic” and “Liberator,” bring back the sensation of hearing David play live. And on The Trio Plays Ware, it’s really interesting to hear the version of “Dinosauria” without David, compared to the quartet version on Cryptology. I think the trio interpretation really captures the brilliance of his composition.

Shipp: One thing that really gets to me is that people think of him as a free jazz sax player, which he can be, but he actually composed some brilliant, brilliant tunes with complex structures. He’s a composer, and some of my favorites are on the Flight of I – the last piece, “Infi-Rhythms #1,” is an amazing little maze of different lines and rhythms, how it all works together. And the first cut, “Aquarian Sound,” is just a very beautiful bluesy line with a lot of weight to it. His compositions could be sometimes just a few bars, but the weight of the motifs – they have the weight of somebody who actually thought of those note choices for years and years before they called us into those pieces. He was a heavy composer, yes.

Fewell: Last question: What can we do to broaden the recognition of creative music in American culture and society?

Shipp: You’re talking about me being upbeat, but if I answer that I have to get really pessimistic! [laughs] I just think the barriers of doing that and the walls that you gotta bang your head against are so intense. My answer I guess would be, you have to rely on the fact that there’s a lot of open-minded people out here who have a need for something different, and that belief has to sustain any musician involved with it. And from that belief you find ways of getting things out there in different ways. Getting your ideas out there and getting heard, it’s such an uphill battle, there are just so many forces against that.

Fewell: I think your optimism outweighs the pessimistic reality.

Shipp: I would like to think that.

Fewell: Your expression of people’s need for something different and a musician’s belief in that as essential to maintaining resistance to any type of obstacle is a very positive view. There is less and less money available for music, and the resources are unevenly divided – it requires a real commitment on the part of musicians playing this music.

Shipp: Commitment is everything. Obviously there’s control over the whole thing because we’re artists, but at the same time you try to also give it over to something bigger than yourself and let the whole cycle go through itself in a natural way.

March 31, 2013

© 2014 Garrison Fewell

Outside Music Inside Voices: Dialogues on Improvisation and the Spirit of Creative Music by Garrison Fewell

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