Contrapuntal Kaleidoscope Man
Matthew Shipp | IÕve Been to Many Places (Thirsty Ear)
by John Payne
If you want to know where Matthew ShippÕs heading, you need to listen
to where heÕs been. The NYC-based jazz/other pianist, whoÕs poked and prodded non-mainstream spheres with the likes of David S. Ware, El-P,
DJ Spooky, Spring Heel Jack and Roscoe Mitchell's Note Factory, among many others, now takes us inside/outside on his new acoustic piano
set IÕve Been to Many Places. An exploded view of the curiously varied avenues and alleyways Shipp has trekked these
many years as one of our premier piano improvisers/redefiners, the albumÕs many pleasures include several beautifully brainy
(and just plain beautiful) pop and jazz standards. IÕve Been to Many Places, which comes out September 9, is a fascinating can of worms, a very special breed of music whose creatorÕs mind and matter was, during the throes of the musicÕs creation, most likely impacted by politics, sports, natural disasters, the economy and etc., etc., etc. Then again, maybe it wasnÕtÉLetÕs hear Shipp explain it:
BLUEFAT: So, IÕve Been to Many Places. WhatÕs the significance of the title? Is there a conceptual link to these pieces?
MATTHEW SHIPP: IÕve done a lot of things in my career, so I wanted to be able to revisit some places IÕve been. Although my piano vocabulary is a naturalistic thing, an organic thing, itÕs always changing and mutating on its own, and I thought if I visited a few landmarks in my career itÕd be a nice way to see what my language is now compared to where itÕs been in the past.
Hence, doing ŅSummertime,Ó which was a tune that William Parker and I recorded on an album as a
duo [Zo, on the Rise label, 1993], and ŅTenderly,Ó which I had done with David S. Ware on an earlier album [Earthquation,
Thirsty Ear 1994]. I also reworked a couple of tunes that I had recorded on string trio albums on HatHut; and ŅNaimaÓ I had recorded with
Matt Maneri [Gravitational Systems, HatHut 2000].
So I touched on some things I had done in the past. But IÕm reinventing it from where I am today.
What goes through your mind when you decide youÕre going to do a standard or pop tune like ŅSummertimeÓ or ŅTenderlyÓ or ŅWhere Is the Love?Ó Do you ask yourself, How straight am I going to be about it, or How much should I mutate on it?
By virtue of the fact that I am who I am, itÕll only be so straight, and even if it is straight, thereÕll always be some resonance to it thatÕs a little different. I try to let each piece dictate where itÕs going to go. I mean, when I play ŅWhere Is the Love,Ó one of the first jazz albums I ever owned as a kid was a solo piano album by Phineas Newborn Jr., and he performed that song on that album, and his version of it really goes through my head.
Conceptually, itÕs not a matter of whether I want to be straight or out with these songs, itÕs that each
tune dictates its own universe and its own way of being. With ŅWhere Is the Love,Ó you can only play so out on a tune like that, because the quality of
the tune is not as open as something like ŅSummertime,Ó where you can go all over the place. On ŅWhere Is the LoveÓ I was attempting to be
pretty straight, I wasnÕt trying to be too expansive on itÉwell, I guess it is slightly more expansive, but even there itÕs within a certain jazz piano paradigm.
But every tune dictates where it wants to go on its own. The tune enters your subconscious mind and somehow it creates its own environment. There might be an agenda on my part, but it gets murky where the actual conscious agenda is coming from. Along with whatever else is going on beneath the surface, that takes on a life of its own and creates the environment that the tune then grows into.
IÕm not exactly sure whatÕs going through my head when I interpret these songs. Sometimes I have an agenda for something, but what actually comes out is completely different, so I might be trying to do something straight and it sounds very out, or I might try to do something out and when I listen to it back to it itÕs actually kind of straight.
The title track, with its dense lyricism, is a good musical summation of the idea of this album.
The title cut is my favorite, because in some ways it really does encapsulate a lot of different things. Yeah.
Many Places features tracks titled ŅBrain Stem GrammarÓ and ŅBrain Shatter,Ó which approximate the way my and probably
most peopleÕs brains work ŠŠ shocks of thought, direction, interruption, brief bits of flow littered with what we see and smell and hear, or memories, anger, bursts of physical momentumÉ
ThatÕs a completely and utterly accurate way of looking at how I think and what I do.
These tracks made me wonder whether sometimes the titles of your pieces might come before the music.
No, no, the music always comes first, and then I title them afterward. I listen to the songs, get my impressions of each song, then the titles just come from that, along with the general philosophical area IÕm coming from.
Well, couldnÕt it work the opposite way, where a certain combination of words might suggest a direction for the music? On ŅLife Cycle,Ó for example, where you seem to be moving the music in literal cycles.
It sounds very Russian to me ŠŠ Scriabin, Rachmaninoff. But thatÕs not what was going through my mind.
I was once in a music theory class that [guitarist] Mick Goodrick was teaching, and he gave some suggestions, like ŅImprovise a piece. YouÕre walking across the grassÓ and this and that, and I remember coming up with some interesting things based on whatever guidelines he gave us, some kind of mental impression. But I donÕt work that way. I could do that, but I just donÕt.
How does your playing relate to literature or poetry?
It relates to a certain abstract area, whether that has to do with a poetic thing or a philosophical thing. If youÕre a sensitive
artist, youÕre taking in everything from your environment, every aspect of it, from what people think of as the highest to the lowest, comes to bear
on a body of work. I think of myself as a poet, basically, when it comes down to the piano. I try to create a character for myself maybe like Walt Whitman, who considered himself a walking poem. And this was a very distinct language. If you see me, you see the language. If you popped open my head, you would see the reasoning for the language. I want to be that organic about it.
ŅPre FormalÓ is an exceptionally beautiful and interesting track. Where does this particular kind of harmonic element ŠŠ the rich tone clusters ŠŠ come from?
TheyÕre block chords, in most of it. Whatever voices IÕm doing in my right hand IÕm doubling up in my left hand, so it gives it a really thick sound. That technique in jazz was used by Milton Buckner and George Shearing, but in a different way. TheyÕre doubling one note in their left hands, but on ŅPre FormalÓ the whole voicing is doubled in both hands; thereÕre times in that piece where I start playing all the chords in the same way, so IÕm doubling the voices in both hands. ItÕs a very impressionistic effect.
IÕm very proud of how that piece came out, and itÕs different within my body of work ŠŠ I donÕt know if IÕve ever recorded anything exactly like that.
I hear the Debussy Etudes in that piece.
Yeah, I used to listen to a lot of Debussy, and IÕve played some. The Preludes were what really turned me around.
What ideas were you exploring in ŅTenderlyÓ? How do you say something new with an old standby like that?
[laughs] Well, first of all, I donÕt know exactly whatÕs going on in any of it. A lot of itÕs a mystery to me. IÕm just like the carrier of subconscious processes.
ItÕs funny, because I can relate to this performance so personally. It just makes sense to me. But if you yourself donÕt know whatÕs going on in itÉ
On that piece IÕm basically trying to do a neo-baroque type thing with a Tin Pan Alley melody. IÕm trying to bleed out of the piano a contrapuntal kaleidoscope. The thing is, thereÕs really no such thing as chords. Keith Jarrett has even said this: ThereÕs no such thing as chords. ThereÕs independent voices moving and independent voices coming together to form blocks of sound.
Within Western theory, when you have a few notes coalescing you call it this chord and that chord, but actually what is
happening in music is always the movement of contrapuntal voices. With this version of ŅTenderly,Ó the melody is there on top, but I have a bunch of voices moving
all around the place, pulling counterpoint lines out of the piano, all the while letting the tenor of the melody carry it.
In a piece like that, the counterpoint is a counterpoint of emotions, thoughts, etc.
Well, it always comes down to something inward youÕre projecting on the instrument. But if I would talk about it in strict technical terms, itÕs just independent melodic lines.
Where are you when you play? WhereÕs your heart, your head?
Cut off from my trunk. [laughs]
When you sit down to play, do you feel yourself assuming a character or role? Or is a matter of trying to forget all that?
I try to forget it. You assume a character and that character is the personification. On one level your subconscious mind
is formless, but whatever personification it would take, whatever that personality would be,
the personality behind the albums, I actually give it a name. I have it on a duo album I did
with William Parker, DNA (Thirsty Ear 1999), thereÕs a cut called ŅMr. Chromosome,Ó and thatÕs the character I assume when I play. But itÕs whatever the personification of my subconscious mind would be if it took on a face or body, which on another level is who I am. If you could remove one part from me and it would be some personification of the medium that the subconscious is, thatÕs the character I assume on each album.
Is what you do on the piano physically demanding?
IÕve been practicing to play this way my whole life, so I have a very developed set of muscles that can handle whatever it takes to do this type of thing IÕve spent my whole life doing. Yes, to do a whole session in a day is exhausting, but thatÕs what I do.
IÕve seen a lot of people with straight-ahead chops try to play in an avant-garde setting, and within
one minute their hands were all, I mean, they couldnÕt play anymore, their muscles were all tense. IÕm not playing any overt kind of avant-garde
jazz on this album, IÕm just saying that one can be a great athlete like Joe Frazier ŠŠ boxing is one of the hardest sports to do, the endurance involved
is astronomical ŠŠ but I remember seeing Frazier on The Wide World of Sports and he was swimming some laps around a pool and he was utterly
exhausted after a couple of laps.
Whatever you do, you have specific muscles geared toward that and which can be developed, but you might not be able to do something else that you think is in the same family. IÕve worked to play piano this way my whole life and yes, it can be exhausting, but on another level itÕs not, because itÕs what I do all day.
WhatÕs your practice routine like?
I have a couple of books I do some exercises out of, and sometimes to stretch my imagination I play Bach, just to get my contraptual mind working where I can sneak in different voices. I play a lot of standards. But, indicative of how I like to grow my own language, I compose and practice my own compositions. At this point the major thing is just to play a lot.
How do you see your development currently? Are there times when you plateau? And what do you do about it?
Whenever I feel that I plateau, there are always ways to switch up my practice routine. And IÕm actually really good at that ŠŠ I could write a book for musicians about how to get past your plateauing, how to come up with different ways to practice to push yourself to the next level or past whatever plateau youÕre at.
There are always ways of bringing fresh inspiration into the practice room that you have to be really conscious of. I know a lot of musicians who practice for hours and hours and they never seem to improve past a certain point. I luckily had teachers that impressed upon you that ŠŠ you know, itÕs like boxers say that any fight is won in the gym, and it's the same with playing a musical instrument: Your development is won in the practice room, so it has to be a ritual that youÕre addicted to and go into with a religious sense about the meditative time you spend with the instrument and yourself. From that, you can develop a lot of ways to keep things moving.
Developing new ideas about oneÕs musical instrument can come from spending time with another instrument. Are you also working with electronic keyboards or other instruments?
I did some synth or organ work when I did the electric things on earlier albums. That whole period was kind of a regroup period for me, a good break from doing things in the usual way that gave me a lot of different strategies to think about, other ways of going about things that revivified my acoustic piano thing, too. Just to completely switch up formats and fool around with other instruments or techniques is a good way to bring some fresh inspiration into whatever is your normal way of doing things.
Is there any reason you donÕt play more U.S. dates, besides the obvious financial aspect?
U.S. jazz festivals are very conservative. ThereÕs a lot of them, but they tend to be kind of lifestyle things where you have the winetasting party and you have jazz there on the side, and I donÕt know if I really fit into that ŠŠ even though I could. [laughs]
Are European audiences more receptive?
Well, people are people, theyÕre receptive wherever, but itÕs just getting in the door at American jazz festivals thatÕs the problem. A lot of them arenÕt even really jazz festivals, theyÕre Ņsmooth jazzÓ festivals or whatever, you know.
Meanwhile youÕve been prolific lately, what with this new record along with Piano Sutras (Thirsty Ear 2013) and
two recent collaborative albums with Brazilian tenor sax man Ivo Perelman. WhatÕs on the recording agenda now?
IÕm finished! [laughs] I keep saying that, and nobody believes me. IÕm not going to say this is my last Thirsty Ear album, but it could be. IÕm not
really planning on doing any American releases. I have some stuff thatÕs coming out here and there that are imported from small European labels, but they wonÕt really be promoted in the American market.
I love the studio experience, but this is a very difficult market right now, and I donÕt feel that I need to keep making documents of this sort. I have some ideas for recording projects, but mainly IÕll be gigging. I just want to play all the big festivals.
If I havenÕt made it clear, the new album is fantastic.
Yeah, I feel very strong about it. I feel like I actually realized what I wanted to do.