Matthew Shipp: Pulling No Punches

by Troy Collins

Matthew Shipp                                                                                                            © Anna Yatskevitch

This year, pianist Matthew Shipp will celebrate his 60th birthday in December. Over more than three decades, Shipp has built a singular body of work and an original musical language that becomes more focused and distinctive over time. Shipp has worked and recorded tirelessly since the late ‘80s, rising to prominence in the early ‘90s as the pianist in the David S. Ware Quartet, and soon began leading his own dates, often featuring fellow Ware bandmates such as bassist William Parker and drummer Whit Dickey. Through a diverse range of live performances and recordings (documented by a variety of independent labels), Shipp has become regarded as a prolific and respected voice in creative improvised music.

Over the course of his career, with his unique and recognizable style, Shipp has proved his individuality, making an impact on the music’s development. DownBeat has written that he is “A musician who deserves a place of choice in the jazz piano pantheon – Matthew Shipp is the connection between this past, present and future for jazz heads of all ages.” All About Jazz declared that he “has become an elder statesman in the jazz world,” and the Wall Street Journal claimed, “Shipp has helped define, with uncommon distinction, a fresh range of possibilities for contemporary pianism grounded in jazz tradition.”

Shipp’s abstract expressiveness is displayed throughout the first of two albums to be released this year. Due out the first of May, The Piano Equation is his latest solo piano outing, a form that has consistently showcased him at his most exploratory, and is the inaugural release on Tao Forms, a new label founded by Shipp’s longtime collaborator, Whit Dickey. In September, Shipp will follow this solo recording with The Unidentifiable, the latest ESP-Disk’ release by his acclaimed trio featuring bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker. I interviewed Shipp in February during preparations for the release of The Piano Equation.


Troy Collins: I know this might seem redundant at this point in your life, but considering you turn 60 this year, perhaps some retrospection is in order. That said, how did you first get your start playing music?

Matthew Shipp: My first recollections of wanting to play music are from the church. My parents are Episcopalian, so the music was very formal and not of a gospel bent. I really liked this one specific theme which had a very Gregorian chant type of thing to it and I wanted to play that on organ. I asked the organist about it and she said I should have piano lessons before organ lessons, so she was my first piano teacher. I was 5 at the time. I stayed with this teacher for a few years before switching to a woman who was also a church organist but in a Baptist church. My second teacher had a thorough knowledge of classical music but at the same time she could rock gospel and had a basic knowledge of jazz. As far as listening as a little kid I would say my taste was no different than the usual kid – I was really caught up in the world of Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. But I did have a taste for classical music that maybe a lot of kids don’t have – and it was not until I was 13 or 14 that I developed a real interest in jazz. But all and all, my really early experiences were not unlike most kids that decide to take music lessons – and I did not get super focused until I was 12. I guess by 12 I realized I was not going to be in the NBA or be the middleweight champion of the world – and I seemed to have a flair for this music thing, so I got caught up in the world of romantic piano: Chopin; Liszt; etc. This is all before the jazz thing hit me big time.

TC: What was the defining moment that caused you to develop a strong interest in jazz?

MS: Jazz had always been around the house. My parents had a decent record collection – mainly stuff that hipsters who read Esquire or Playboy would have had in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s (not that my parents read Esquire or Playboy). They had Ahmad Jamal; Brubeck; Basie; Ellington; Donald Shirley; Stan Kenton; Miles; Nina Simone; and some Clifford Brown. Clifford was from my hometown (Wilmington, Delaware) and my mom was friends with him – she went to the same high school he went to. Anyway, my parents took me to a bunch of jazz concerts when I was really young, and I really dug them although I was not focused on jazz. When I was like 6 my parents took me to hear George Shearing and I remember really liking it a lot. I think I saw the Basie band a lot as a kid – they came through Wilmington every year. Also Monk was arrested in New Castle, Delaware in an unfortunate incident – and my parents were friends with the lawyer who represented him – so they got to meet Monk and had a fascination with him, although they really did not get his music. My mother seemed to have an intuitive understanding of the figure of Monk – who he was and what he represented – even though that was not really her music. My parents also had a lot of Errol Garner LPs – that was really their man. Also, my father was a policeman and the vibe player Lem Winchester (who played with Ramsey Lewis) was also a cop in Wilmington and a friend of my dad. Lem had an unfortunate accident playing Russian roulette. All of this is to say jazz was around the house.

As far as when I got completely galvanized by jazz was when I was 12. In the period of a week I heard both Ahmad Jamal and Nina Simone, both on TV on PBS. Both shows deeply affected me and I knew I wanted to be a jazz musician. I still continued with some serious classical study, but my heart was with jazz now.

TC: That’s an interesting pair to be inspired by. Simone’s classical technique and Jamal’s unorthodox, drummer-less line-ups can be heard in your own body of work. Do you think their unique approaches had any influence on your aesthetic as it developed?

MS: Absolutely. Hearing Nina Simone at the time I did was perfect – since she played her own idiom of music, which was black music, but she had intense classical training and her music took in all that she had studied. So she made it obvious that you could have a music that is blues-based but yet use the textures and the veneer of classical music, and there was a place and expression where they could meet without trying too self-consciously to be Third Stream. Also, Nina kind of had her own idiom of music. She could take any song: a folk song; a jazz standard; a Bob Dylan song, and she could just make it a Nina Simone experience. Other artists who had that ability (and who I was interested in) were Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. Their music was their own idiom and they could take any song and redo it in their image. Nina’s music had a dark power and mystery to me. With Jamal it was an eloquence that again was blues-based but there was a coolness in attitude and in the execution of it that really caught my attention. One way to state it was that it was super cool. Nina was dark and mysterious; Ahmad was eloquent and cool, but super deep also.

TC: I’d venture to say those qualities (dark and mysterious, eloquent and cool) are found in your music as well. In a similar train of thought, it might be water under the bridge at this point, but I’m curious how you feel (retrospectively) about the electro-acoustic work you did with the Thirsty Ear label? Considering your oeuvre at large, some of those recordings (not the acoustic piano trio records, but the more electronic collaborations) now seem a bit like outliers in your discography. Care to reflect on that time and those projects?

MS: Those records where right for their time and constitute a real passion I had then. In my mind they are just other Matthew Shipp albums – my core piano language is my language – in a sense they are just other orchestrations. But at the end the day, it’s just some other music. When doing them I knew that at the core I am an acoustic pianist in a modern jazz-based language, and I knew the heart of what I do is the solos and the trios. But in the span of a career that lasts decades you have to sometimes stretch out and do something out of the pattern. In a way it kind of reboots the mind and retunes the spirit. And you learn a lot. I am so glad I went through that period. It served its purpose on many levels. Now it’s next.

TC: It’s interesting to hear your answer to this question, as I had interviewed you before, back in 2004, when you were deeply involved with Thirsty Ear, as their curator. Naturally, your focus on collaborating with DJs and electronic musicians was different then than it is now. So, to bring us up to date, one of your most reliable collaborators over the past decade or so has been Ivo Perelman. How did you two first start working together?

MS: I don’t remember the first time I heard Ivo – but I was somehow aware of him, I guess from some reviews. I heard something somewhere and thought – wow, he is very decent, but I didn’t really give him a lot of thought. Then, one night I decided to check him out at the Knitting Factory. I’m not sure, but I remember either Marilyn Crispell or Don Pullen was the pianist. But anyway, it was a decent gig, but at the time I was more interested in playing with people who were more directly involved in the Lower East Side (Vision Festival) school. Anyway, flash forward a couple of years into the mid-90s and my wife was working at this restaurant in the Lower East Side and Ivo was a customer. They got in a conversation – he mentioned what he did, she mentioned that she was married to me, and he said, “I’ve wanted to play with him.” She hooked us up and the first time we played we were in the studio recording the duo CD Bendito of Santa Cruz that came out on Cadence. From the first note I ever played with Ivo I felt the connection – it was immediate and uncanny.

TC: Your relationship with Ivo certainly has resulted in an abundance of recordings – more than most mortals can keep up with! But there are some relationships you’ve had with other musicians that go back even further. Among them is William Parker. How did you two first meet?

MS: Before I moved to New York in 1983 I was aware of William. I had heard him on a Cecil Taylor album – I can’t remember which one, but I got the whole essence of the William Parker experience from that and knew he was a bridge from that generation to a new one, so I had it on my radar to meet him when I moved here. I think like the second week I was here I attended a Billy Bang concert at some Latin community center and William was in the band. I went up after the concert and introduced myself but that was all. I did mention that I played. About a week later I ran into William on 1st Avenue and 1st on the corner there in Manhattan and had a long talk with him. I described who I was and what I wanted to do with the music and I somehow ended up getting him a tape of me. He seemed to accept me pretty much right away – I was hanging out a lot with drummer Denis Charles at the time – and all the cats seemed to accept me kind of right away. I think somewhere in the first year I was here I did a concert with William and it was off to the races as far as a lifetime partner in music.

TC: Your other primary bass player is Michael Bisio, who you’ve worked with a great deal as well, especially as of late. How did you two first meet?

MS: I first became aware of Bisio when I heard his CD on the Swedish label Silkheart Records. That label was recording the New York scene at that time, but I guess found their way to some other stuff also – Bisio was living in Seattle at the time. I had a quartet record out on Silkheart, Points. Anyway, I liked Bisio’s record a lot but never gave him any thought. I had a duo concert with William Parker in Seattle at the Earshot jazz festival and Bisio came backstage after the concert to introduce himself. We talked and I told him I really liked his CD. We agreed to keep in touch and years and years passed by. He later moved to New York and contacted me. By that time William was really, really busy with his own projects and groups so I needed another bass player to have a working group. Enter Bisio. The first concert we did was an actual composer’s commission I got at The Kitchen in New York. In the piece was me, Bisio, Mat Maneri on viola, and Okkyung Lee on cello. After that concert Bisio officially joined my trio.

TC: Considering your longstanding relationships with both these artists, and the frequency with which they perform alongside you, I’m curious how you decide between the two when the time comes to choose a collaborator for a particular project? Is it a matter of scheduling and convenience, or are there stylistic differences that influence your decision?

MS: Bisio is the bassist in my trio. I sometimes do duos with him also. If I use him in a quartet, like I did with Nicole Mitchell on All Things Are (Rogueart), it is because the concept was specifically that soloist with my trio. If I use William on a project, it is usually because of my long-term relationship with him that something specific has been requested with William and myself. It is never stylistic reasons per se that dictate one or the other but usually personal – like in Seraphic Light, which features a group with me, William, and Daniel Carter. It makes more sense for William to be in that group because of his long history with Daniel. It is an honor to play with both of them and depending on who I play with it brings out a slightly different aspect of my language.

TC: I assume the same could be said of Whit Dickey – you two have a long history together, and now you have a solo album, The Piano Equation, being released on his new label, Tao Forms. I know he had some personal issues that took him out of play a few years ago – did that factor into your decision to hire Newman Taylor Baker as the drummer in your trio? Or is that merely a coincidence?

MS: Whit was out of the music business for a while because of some personal issues. During that period Newman Taylor Baker became the drummer in my trio. At this point for where the trio is, Newman is the perfect drummer for it. I continue to have a musical relationship with Whit in various special projects.

TC: One of those projects is the previously mentioned solo release for Dickey’s label. As someone who has issued numerous solo piano recordings over the years, can you discuss how you approach that process, from a creative standpoint?

MS: It is always a continuation of the process of language development. I am always taking language in and I am always reacting to language in the framework of who I am and how the language filters through my unique prism. A lot of this is a passive thing – I have to get myself out of the way so the language can flow through. However, to have a passive thing/process occur takes a lot of confidence. Therefore, there are ‘‘approaches’’ to practicing promoting feeling really good about yourself at the instrument and being relaxed enough to know the music will flow. This also involves on some deep level a real trust in your language – an artist’s eventual trust in his or her language is what really gets across to the audience – the artist needs to be wedded to the language on the deepest of levels. This all comes from how you structure your practice routine, which is unique for each artist, and the elements of how they practice enter into the final product – which is their music. As a boxing fan they say that fights are won or lost in the gym before the fight – ditto here. In the practice room you have established your connection to the language and the instrument. In my case, I hope that the music on any of my albums is an ongoing marriage of me – my instrument and the language – and that these things form a whole.

TC: It’s interesting that you mention boxing – I know you (and Miles before you) are (were) avid boxing fans. You two can’t be the only jazz musicians who love the sport, either. Do you find there to be any obvious parallels between boxing and jazz?

MS: Yes, I do. I have best talked about this in the form of a poetic essay I wrote called Boxing and Jazz. This piece has been published on a few boxing sites plus in a few poetry journals. I tackle the praxis of both crafts from the standpoint of dance – from the standpoint of a product of the nervous system – and as rhythm. Also, in how they both serve specific functions in particular communities. I think my points are best stated in the form of that essay except for trying to be prosaic about it. But I also think boxing in so many ways can be a metaphor for so many things. I love when Chris Matthews, the political talking head on the TV show Hardball, talks about politics and uses boxing metaphors.

TC: Thinking of boxing as a duet, quite a few of yours have been with bassists (William Parker, Michael Bisio, Joe Morris) but most of your duo partners have specifically been saxophonists: Rob Brown; Roscoe Mitchell; Evan Parker; Sabir Mateen; Daniel Carter; Darius Jones; Ivo Perelman; etc. Is this a conscious decision on your behalf, or merely coincidence?

MS: This just happened – not sure why, but there wasn’t anything conscious about this at the beginning except the fact that Rob Brown and I moved to New York around the same time. We use to play almost every day, so we developed a language and an approach. Then my [our] first album was a duo, Sonic Explorations, on the Cadence label. By vent of doing so much I almost felt like I became a specialist in this format.  It is a focus I continued as I got involved with more horn players – and yes, since I have kept it up for so many years with so many different horn players I do feel uniquely situated as a specialist at this format.

TC: Before we carry on with an overview of your work and various ensembles, perhaps we should mention a number of upcoming releases you have slated for this year, two of which are due out on RogueArt: one with a pair of longtime collaborators, the other with a new associate. Symbolic Reality features William Parker and Mat Maneri, while What If? is a duo with Nate Wooley. Would you care to discuss how those projects came about?

MS: The string trio is a long-standing group of mine dating back to the 1990s. We had two CDs on hatART, By the Law of Music, and Expansion, Power and Release. I had always wanted to do one more string trio CD in this century and the record label RogueArt was of the same mindset. As far as the duo with Nate – I have long been a fan of the niche that Nate has carved out for himself in the new music scene. A while back (I don’t exactly remember how it happened) there was a new music classical concert in Philadelphia – they had a pianist playing a piece by Boulez. Anyway, the promoter asked for myself and Nate to do an improvised duo during that concert. I think that was the first time we played. From there I think I did a couple of Ivo Perelman sessions with Nate, and Whit Dickey sessions. We also played together in a performance that William Parker did that included Nate, me, and some singers. I also included Nate in a chamber piece I was commissioned to do that was performed at the Vision Festival a couple of years ago. Throughout all of this we talked about doing a duet CD someday, and that day came about.

TC: That brings up an interesting question. Although the majority of your work can be considered part of the larger jazz cannon (piano trio and other small combos), there are other projects that are more readily associated with chamber music or classical composition - the string trio, for example. Do you draw a distinction between those projects in how you conceive of and/or execute them?

MS: Music is Music. If it is my music, it’s all about how I can express myself. I will use any source material to wed to the inside of me to promote a musical phrase that at the end of the day is a Matthew Shipp musical phrase. It is all about what is in front of me and how to best use it. If it is a violin and a cello or something like that, then of course it will have overtones to what some people think of as chamber music. But to me form follows function and it is all about using what is in front of you to create a phrase with integrity.

TC: Insofar as source material is concerned, when searching for the right phrase, are there any artists that you’ve found have longstanding appeal for you – artists whose work you can return to again and again for inspiration in making your own work?

MS: I have been inspired by so many artists in my life. But I guess at 60 you can try to figure out who the major inspirations are who have been throughout. As far as music goes, I would have to say they are: Bud Powell; Monk; Sal Mosca; Albert Ayler; my teacher Dennis Sandole; and Charlie Parker. I pick these people as opposed to tons of others whose music I love and who have influenced me because of a purity and an angelic quality that I get out of them that I aspire to.

TC: I can certainly hear shades of all those artists throughout your work, even limited to pianists, whether it’s the bluesy intensity of Powell, the quirky intervals of Monk, or the Tristano-school formalism of Mosca. Which reminds me, what about Bach? I often feel like I hear Bachian counterpoint in some of you work.

MS: There is a ton of Bach in me – I greatly admire Glenn Gould, so I spent countless hours playing and listening to Bach growing up – countless, countless hours. And Gould is a big influence on me in many ways. Also, Bach chills me out – if it was not for Bach I might have snapped a few times.

TC: I’ve yet to meet a musician who doesn’t at least respect Bach, and it might also give some additional insight into your formative interest in Nina Simone, since her pianism was also Bach-influenced.

MS: Yes, it really is a matter of knowing who you are – being open to all kinds of language and being so strong in who you are that no matter what language you adapt, it somehow weds into you and goes through your prism and makes sense within your sound world. And why waste anything? If you are Nina Simone, you have the classical training and no pretending to be part of a rural or urban blues legend is ever going to erase the fact that you have that classical training. At the end of the day it’s all music by composers who are dealing with the fact that we are on this planet or ball in space – no one knows why we are here and you are trying to make sense out of this conundrum. An artist like Nina – like I am – is going to retain the essence of who we are as a black person, but we understand language and can make that Bach fugue work within the framework of who we are and our own worldview.

TC: Speaking of Nina Simone, she could be quite outspoken, and you’ve had your fair share of dustups with the press (Stanley Crouch, for example). But one issue that crops up repeatedly is the idea that you’re going to retire early, or at least stop recording, and yet, like clockwork, every time that news materializes, so do a flurry of new recordings. I’m curious, what brings this about? Or is there some miscommunication between you and the press that facilitates it?

MS: Stanley is my only ‘‘dustup’’ with the press. That is not because he is the media or any issues about that. It’s because he is a horrible, reprehensible excuse for sub-human nothingness. I have no problem with the media, all in all. I’ve been treated decently by the media and though there are loads of jazz industry games I have no interest in playing at my age, I am glad I’ve been able to keep practicing and keep growing and I have survived and can make a living at what I do. Guess I have had a slight ‘‘dustup’’ that might have been a little public with Howard Mandel and Willard Jenkins. Such things happen from time to time – it’s a tough industry for everyone involved. No hard feelings with those people.

As far as stopping commercial recordings goes, I have meant it when I said it, but I keep getting offers – some I have not been able to refuse. I seem to have a fan base that has not gotten sick of me yet.  I don’t want to keep recording forever and really do feel I am near the end. But I have been able to keep growing. At some point that will be that as far as records go.

TC: Most jazz musicians seem to record less frequently as they age – their reputation precedes them, and therefore have nothing left to prove. You could easily go that route at some point. Speaking of future endeavors, what do you have planned for your 60th birthday year, other than the previously mentioned albums on RogueArt and Tao Forms?

MS: For 2020, the solo CD The Piano Equation on the new label Tao Forms is the major release at this point. I do have a trio CD coming out in September on ESP-Disk’ called The Unidentifiable. There are a bunch of imports that will come out on the French label RogueArt. Also, on the import tip there is a duo with Daniel Carter on NotTwo, the Polish label. So, there is a lot of activity, yes.

TC: Any special concerts planned to coincide with your birthday?

MS: There are solo concerts all throughout the year to promote The Piano Equation. But as of this time no birthday events like something where I feature a different group of mine every night for a week.

© Troy Collins

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