Every Matthew Shipp album is a major event. Not in the sense of a Lady Gaga album, accompanied by a relentless publicity campaign and hyped as a cultural upheaval of massive commercial significance. No, a Matthew Shipp album is a major event for jazz because he is one of the most important pianists alive, and also because he hardly ever rests on his laurels, comfortable in a circumscribed style -- he evolves from one album to the next in a nearly disconcerting way. Even though his playing is immediately recognizable -- one would never confuse him with any of the other pianists on the scene -- it shifts slightly from album to album.
This is not merely a matter of setting (solo, trio, duo) or collaborators, though of course who he works with does affect how he plays. Even if one just looks at the progression of his solo albums, they are sufficiently dissimilar that the listener has to reorient from one to the next. And so it is on his newest solo album, the so aptly titled Piano Sutras.
I have been following Shipp's music nearly from the beginning of his recording career. His first album, a duo with saxophonist Rob Brown, appeared in 1988; I first heard Shipp in 1990. He didn't record his first solo release, Symbol Systems (No More), until November 1995, and even that, he told me at the time, was an accident because another musician scheduled for the session didn't show up. He also expressed discomfort playing without other musicians to interact with. It turned out, though, that a solo concert in Germany had been recorded in June '95 and was eventually released as Before the World (FMP), so he was at least thinking about what playing solo would mean for him.
On those 1995 recordings, Shipp was already quite individualistic, but played with more sense of space; his harmonies were rich, maybe even richer in general, but spread out more. I threw out a comparison to Mussorgsky; he copped instead to a love of Scriabin, which immediately made more sense (and the influence of Scriabin on modern jazz, specifically his preference for chords built on fourths rather than triads, is a topic that could fill a book). He didn't record solo again until 2001, a one-off project, Songs, for the Italian label Splasc(H), which true to its title consisted entirely of jazz standards, though an unusually broad selection that included such modern "standards" as Sonny Rollins's "East Broadway Run Down." Five years later, after he'd moved into a knottier style, came One, on Thirsty Ear (Shipp curates the label's Blue Series), a landmark in his career about which I wrote, "His distinctive personal style continues to shift and evolve; here he often pares back the density and at times gives his music a more composed feel. Sometimes modal, sometimes 'outside,' his improvisations unfold organically, sometimes lyrical, more often probing and spiky." In 2008, French label Rogue art issued Un Piano, which I have not heard; 2010 brought another I haven't tracked down, Creation Out of Nothing (Live in Moscow)(SoLyd), along with the more readily available 4D (Thirsty Ear), which has a gnomic Bachian feeling, at least to me; if he had titled it Inventions, I wouldn't have batted an eyelash. And now, Piano Sutras.
The influence on Shipp of Mal Waldron (1925-2002) seems to go largely unremarked, with Shipp much more often being compared to Cecil Taylor. Now of course Cecil was not uninfluential, but more, perhaps, by being someone whose style Shipp shied away from in the quest to forge an individual sound. Yet critics who don't know any better hear dissonant free jazz piano and reflexively say "Cecil Taylor," as though there's only one avant-piano-jazz template.
No, Shipp is far more influenced by Waldron, and enthusiastically admits it whenever the topic is raised. This is not to say that he imitates Waldron; rather, he has absorbed Waldron's also-distinctive approach and refracted it back out through his own stylistic prism so that it's something new -- but anyone who has heard, for instance, Waldron's mighty solo album On Steinway (recorded in 1972 for the Japanese label Teichiku, and most recently reissued on CD by Fuel 2000) can hear that Shipp has roots there (and in Ellington, Monk, Beirach, and the aforementioned Scriabin, among others). One can hear this very specifically in his sense of rhythm and the way he will repetitively hammer and peck at a pattern, subtly mutating it; in the gnarled shapes of some of his themes, the way they crookedly spiral around an unstated center; and more generally in how often he plays in the piano's lower range. (For that matter, Waldron was over a decade into his recording career -- and past a change in style at least partly related to recovering from brain damage [after a heroin overdose] that led to him playing less like his bebop origins and with greater angularity [though this shift had started before the accident] -- before he made his first solo recording.)
I'm going on about the Waldron influence because it seems particularly strong on this album (though it has been audible at least as far back as One). I think some of the aspects of the style that I just highlighted may even be reflected in the album's title in a way. Sutras, though written, are chanted in a hypnotic way; Hindu sutras are short, aphoristic nuggets of truth. (Shipp does not go in for half-hour pieces; not for him an album with only two tracks -- Piano Sutras has 13.) Pardon me while I quote Wikipedia:
"One of the most famous definitions of a sutra in Indian literature is itself a sutra and comes from the Vaya Purana:"
alpākṣaraṃ asandigdhaṃ sāravad viśvatomukham
astobhaṃ anavadyaṃ ca sūtram sūtravido viduḥ
Of minimal syllabary, unambiguous, pithy, comprehensive,
continuous, and without flaw: who knows the sūtra knows it to be thus.
I include the original because even its rhythm and repetition of vowel sounds reminds me of Shipp's music. Buddhist sutras are longer and more repetitive, as an aid to memorization; while it would be hard to memorize the twists and turns of a Shipp solo, the sense of pondering a mystery from a variety of angles is the same.
Shipp includes two jazz standards on Piano Sutras: a brief rendition of Coltrane's iconic "Giant Steps" played as a lush ballad devoid of the competitiveness so often found in flag-waving versions, and Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti" (from his Miles Davis days), almost as though to say, "Yeah, I dissed his new album, but here's something I respect." Shipp makes the harmonies much denser, putting his own spin on the piece, of course. It's no random choice from the Shorter catalog; as heard on Davis's Nefertiti album, it goes over the theme repeatedly (no solo sections), slightly different each time -- does that sound like something I've already described today? No wonder "Nefertiti" attracted Shipp. But these are just changes of pace, not the main attractions; Shipp's own compositions/improvisations hold sway on an album that rivets one's attention if given a fair chance (it ain't easy listening background). - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. He is producing a concert this Sunday in Brooklyn for the 50th anniversary of ESP-Disk'.