his unique and recognizable style, pianist Matthew Shipp worked and
recorded vigorously during the 1990s, creating music where free jazz
and modern classical intertwine. He first became known in the early
1990s as the pianist in the David S. Ware Quartet, and soon began leading
his own group -- most often including Ware bandmate, leading bassist
William Parker -- and recording a number of duets with a variety of
musicians, from the legendary Roscoe Mitchell to violinist Mat Maneri
who began appearing on recordings in the 1990s. Through his range of
live and recorded performances and unswerving individual development,
Shipp came to be regarded as a prolific and respected voice in creative
music by the decade's close.
Born in the 1960s and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, Matthew Shipp
grew up listening to 1950s jazz recordings. He began playing piano at
the young age of five and decided to focus on jazz by the time he was
12. Shipp played on a Fender Rhodes in rock bands while privately devouring
recordings by a variety of jazz players.
His first mentor was a man in his hometown named Sunyata, who had an
enthusiasm for a variety of studies in addition to music. Shipp later
studied music theory and improvisation under Clifford Brown's teacher
Robert "Boisey" Lawrey, as well as classical piano and bass clarinet
for the school band. After one year at the University of Delaware, Shipp
left and took lessons with Dennis Sandole for a short time, after which
he attended the New England Conservatory of Music for two years.
Shipp moved to NYC in 1984 and soon met bassist William Parker, among
others. Both were playing with tenor saxophonist Ware by 1989, and debuted
as a recording artist in a duo with alto player Rob Brown. He married
singer Delia Scaife around 1990. Shipp then went on to lead his own
trio with Parker and drummers Whit Dickey and Susie Ibarra. Shipp has
worked for a number of labels, including FMP, No More, Eremite, and
Thirsty Ear. He was in California recently when I talked to him. Matthew
is a tall thin intense looking guy who I used to see walking around
St Marks and the East Village. He played three sold out nights recently
at Brunoís in San Francisco. His new album is called NEW ORBIT.
AL: Today is Henry Rollinsí birthday.
Itís 2-13-2001! How did you hook up with Rollins?
Shipp: Iíll have to give him a call. I knew him from Black
Flag. I read an article about him and he was talking about jazz. I knew
the guy who wrote the article and ran into him on the street. I told
him that I was shocked that Rollins was into jazz. I couldnít imagine
Black Flag doing jazz. This guy told me to send me stuff to Rollins.
I got the 2-13-61 address, sent him a package, and he got in touch with
me. Heís a unique individual. We hang out sometimes and get along still.
We have mutual respect.
AL: How did you meet David S. Ware?
Matthew Shipp: In 1989, Ware put
out the word that he was looking for a pianist. William Parker put in
a good word for me. He got in touch with me and we started playing together.
We did a record called Flight of I. I was a big fan of Ware's
work. Playing with Ware is like being at home. My style of piano really
fits his compositions. He gives me freedom to be me. He doesnít put
any restrictions on me.
AL: Older Jazz guys all played with
each other and knew each other. How do you compare the 1950s in jazz
compared to how it is now?
Matthew Shipp: The world is way
too fragmented for anything like that to exist now. Things started breaking
down in the 1970s. Now we are pass the point of no return. That is not
to say that an individual canít find a path with a heart, or a path
that is really rooted in something. As far as looking at things from
this to this in a nice sequential way, it doesnít work because the world
is too complex and fragmented. I am a product of a certain tradition.
Obviously so. I come out of a 1960s avant garde jazz tradition. That
whole spectrum of McCoy Tyner, Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, Paul Blake...
I donít think you can look at it from bam to bam to bam.
AL: Then thereís Classical influences
in your work?
Matthew Shipp: Yeah. All that is
at my fingertips whenever I want to call on it. But right now I am going
through a phase where I want to make a nice record. Something that is
just... nice. (laughter). Whatever that means. Some of it is melancholy.
But thereís also a cut called ďU FeatureĒ where I just lay out. Itís
like raw free jazz shooting out of a funnel. The album has a structure
where that stuff is submerged, and then it jumps out for one cut, then
it goes beneath the surface. This album is more like an ambient free
jazz album. Itís meant to have wide open spaces. Itís not crazy.
AL: How much improvisation do you
do when playing live?
Matthew Shipp: A good part of what
we do is improvisation. The Orbit series is written out. Itís a very
classical theme. On the other songs thereís fragments. I approached
this album in the same way, as I conceive of it, as Miles David approached
Kind of Blue. He went in the studio with a few sketches, and
no rehearsals. He knew what he wanted. He knew that he had the musicians
to get at what he wanted. But to develop in the studio with a few minimal
sketches which served as a backbone so the album would hold together
well. Thatís how I approached this album New Orbit.
AL: What are some of your influences
outside music? I read that you were into Abstract Expressionism?
Matthew Shipp: Iím influenced by
millions of things.
AL: New Orbit reminded me
of films and film soundtracks.
Matthew Shipp: It has a film noir
type of vibe. I could fit in the film world really easily. As far as
other influences, I am influenced by everything. Music is a set of abstract
sounds, but what goes into it is a whole vocabulary of your own culture
and what it means to be alive. Bruce Lee is an influence.
AL: Oh really. His spiritual trip
or his kung fu technique?
Matthew Shipp: Well, no. His gracefulness
and his whole philosophy surrounding Jeet Kune Do. His whole idea is
not being constricted by a form. He developed Jeet Kune Do which is
a fight that makes you adjust to reality, as opposed to the dead bones
of a form. Even if you learn a form itís not these movements or those
movements, it has to come alive, with skin and blood, and not just be
a skeleton. The whole idea of really being rooted in emotion and improvisation,
but also working so hard on your material that you transcend your material,
you can really adjust to the situation. Thereís a degree of highly developed
improvisation in Jeet Kune Do and Bruce Leeís philosophy. Itís not adhering
to any form or being in a straight-jacket. To me musical language is
all relative, so I feel free to take from the tradition that I come
fro, whether itís the avant grade jazz tradition, classical tradition,
or certain aspects of ragtime or even rock and roll.
AL: Who is Mr. Chromosome?
Matthew Shipp: He is an invention
of mine as a teenager. You must realize that personality is a construct.
We all have ďourselvesĒ but one can play with oneís ďself.Ē You can
create a persona.
As a teenager I was fascinated by Sun Ra and his embodiment of certain
mythological themes of his personality. I was also intrigued by David
Bowie and his character Ziggy Stardust. Mainly because Bowie hid behind
this character and was such a shy kid. He had to develop a whole persona
for himself. I like the whole man from outer space theme. I created
Mr. Chromosome who was a mathematician from another planet who got stuck
here on earth. Sort of like David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Mr. Chromosome was a figure who filled my subconscious and allowed me
to develop a musical persona. In a sense I am this walking thing with
a mathematical system in my head, and I just sit down at the piano and
map out this whole realm of language. Like a weird kid, I was pretending
that I was him. I donít know what to say.
AL: Do you like Hip Hop and DJ culture?
Matthew Shipp: Iím a big fan of
that. Some rappers really seem to know what Iím doing. I was stopped
on the street by Killah Priest. He told me that I made the piano talk.
I considered that a compliment. I did a session with A Guy Called Gerald.
That was great. He was laying down some intense beats and I just did
my thing. I think that sampling is a very valid form of musical thought.
For someone to do it well requires musical imagination. You canít be
against it. Any aspect of Hip Hop is closer to the Jazz spirit than
some of the conservative notions of people like Winston Marsalis. Max
Roach said he understood where Hiphop was coming from. Hip Hop is here
to stay. DJ culture is very valid.
AL: What do you think of some of
the younger guys and girls getting into Jazz and trying to make a living?
Matthew Shipp: Jazz is a tough cookie.
Itís a very hard lifestyle. Itís not for the faint of heart. My advice
for them is to drink a lot of water, because thatís healthy for you.
Itís easy to get involved, but itís difficult to have an impact or make
a living. Iíve got to a point where Iím doing okay but itís taken years.
Itís been hard. A lot of people just die of bad health and being poor.
Thatís the easy way out I guess, to leave the planet. Sun Ra died because
there wasnít any heat in the house. Itís hard.
Full Matthew Shipp Discography: http://www.velocity.net/~bb10k/SHIPP.disc.html
Free Williamsburg© | 93 Berry
Street | Brooklyn, NY 11211
| June 2001 | Issue 15