Ever since bursting onto the New York scene from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1984, pianist Matthew Shipp has reigned supreme as one of the most individual and iconoclastic improvisers of his generation. Grounded in, but not limited to, the avant-garde, Shipp has recorded more than 50 recordings that have defined and redefined the stylistic parameters of that idiom. While doing so, he has become equally known for his caustic outbursts against what he feels is an aesthetically rigid jazz establishment.
I grew up with Shipp in Wilmington, Delaware, and, like him, spent much of my youth listening to the Jackson 5 and studying classical music in high school, so I know there is more to Shipp than the L’Enfant Terrible persona that often overshadows his music.
I sat down with Shipp for an interview in his father’s quiet home in suburban Wilmington. What emerged was an informative history of his evolution as an artist, and an explanation as to why he stopped recording after the release of his new album, Piano Song (Thirsty Ear), arguably his most integrative and ingenious work to date.
How did growing in Wilmington influence you as a musician?
Wilmington has its own extremely rich history, and is geographically close to Philly. There’s a continuum within the whole East Coast, from Boston to New York, Philly, and some parts of the South, with many tributaries. And I have taken from all of them to constitute my own unique synthesis.
What got you hooked on jazz?
There were two PBS specials featuring Ahmad Jamal and Nina Simone. They both flipped me out [laughs]. Ahmad Jamal was playing this spare blues, but his language was so cool, just the confidence he had. I didn’t know somebody could get to that. With Nina Simone, her language was so deep. It scared me [laughs]. I was playing classical music, and I was interested in improvisation. She had a classical background, but there was something about how she related the piano to a very black idiom. I really like artists who are in their own genre. Like Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles. That’s what I’ve been trying to do since I was 12 years old.
You studied with Robert “Boysie” Lowery, a Wilmington educator who taught generations of local musicians, from Clifford Brown and Ernie Watts, with his methodology called The Lessons.
The Lessons were a very thought-out way of going through chord changes: a way to get you to think very slowly, and structure your solo, where you’re not just blowing through chord changes.
Another mentor was a janitor and a computer expert named Sunyata, who used to live in Newark, [Delaware]. He was a mathematical philosopher. He saw that I had possibilities in what he called the Iconoclastic Mystery School. He encouraged me to follow my own music.
Where you listening to the avant-garde during this period?
I was into Coltrane, Andrew Hill and Sun Ra. And a lot of my introduction to the music was through WRTI-FM at Temple University in Philly. I remember hearing “Salt Peanuts” with Dizzy and Bird. And that was more out to me than Coltrane. I never thought that about A Love Supreme. I also heard Malachi Favors, Sunny Murray … . WRTI really changed my life around.
You also read J.C. Thomas’ Chasing the Trane.
I read it around [when I was] 13 or 14 years old, cover to cover, 20 or 30 times. Trane’s cosmic quest comes through in the book. And Trane’s teacher, Dennis Sandole, is talked about in the book.
Sandole was a Philadelphia-based guitarist who taught advanced theory and composition. You met him through a mutual friend. What did you learn from him?
What I learned from Dennis was the mind’s capacity of constructing a language: A group of chord changes, or anything that improvisers decide to extrapolate on, is an infinite platform. And it’s up to you to work on your materials over and over again until [your music] creates its own language.
Did you better understand Trane’s music because of your studies with Sandole?
I think I understood Trane’s methodology more. I think I had an intuitive understanding of what he was aiming for, from the first time I ever saw the cover of A Love Supreme in Wilmington Dry Goods as a 12- or 13-year-old [laughs].
You moved to New York City in 1984, from Boston, where you studied at the New England Conservatory. Who were your pianistic influences then?
In the ’70s, Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor were doing solo concerts. That whole idea of solo-piano-as-extemporary-composition was really in the air because of those two practitioners. So if I’m going to go that way, how am I going to do it? I don’t want to be Cecil Taylor … and I definitely don’t want to be Keith Jarrett, because I don’t like him. But that kind of structural element of how to present yourself as a musical personality was really geared in my head.
But because you are black and playing piano in a dissonant way, everybody compared you to Cecil.
Back in the day, if you played anything with dissonance that was the easy way out. And I invited the comparison more, because when I joined the David S. Ware Quartet, I was the pianist in a band of all Cecil Taylor alumni [laughs]. Now, I was very militant … and I got across the idea that I had my own thing.
In the ’90s and the early part of the 21st century, you started calling out a host of critics, musicians and jazz institutions. Why?
I felt that at that I was being ignored. I targeted two things in that period. The first thing was Jazz at Lincoln Center. In the ’90s, certain people in that organization were outspoken in their close-minded views on certain things … I felt I had to be a counter-balancing voice. But it’s funny: Nowadays, I actually have a really great relationship with Jazz at Lincoln Center.
How did that happen?
I got to know those people over the years. They came down to the Knitting Factory. I thought there was a gospel way to be up there: You had to follow the program, or else “goodbye.” But pretty much everybody I met was pretty knowledgeable about the whole spectrum of the music. So I performed at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, and I did some educational [talks] there.
What was your other major criticism?
The pantheon of pianists who played with Miles Davis: Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. They occupied such a central place in the whole pianistic zeitgeist from the ’70s—especially in schools.
Now, to be honest, my actual criticism was more about the jazz business, than with them. I do listen to Herbie Hancock, because he embodied a certain type of blackness in the ’70s that was cool. But that doesn’t stop me from being critical of a certain cynicism I felt in everything he’s done since ”Rockit.”
I already talked about Keith Jarrett as a spontaneous improviser, not his language, actually did play a part in my development. But language-wise, I came out of Bud Powell, Monk and Ellington without going through them in the ’70s.
Also, there was actually a degree of calculation involved [in my outbursts]. I believed the things I said. But while I knew I would turn some people off, I also knew that a whole lot of people would admire the balls I had to say those things.
You recorded for musician/actor Henry Rollins’ 2.13.61 Records, and with the Hat Art label. But since 1999, your longest association has been with Peter Gordon’s Thirsty Ear imprint, where you’ve recorded a slew of recordings: from solo and strings to electronica and hip-hop, including Harmony And Abyss, The Art Of The Improviser, and The Conduct Of Jazz. You also served as curator/producer for the label’s Blues Series.
Peter Gordon knows a lot about jazz. For me, it really helps knowing that somebody actually believes in your vision. Even if they know it’s going to take a awhile for the public to catch up with you.
Your new release for that label is Piano Song, a 12-track opus with your latest trio with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Baker Taylor.
Michael Bisio and I have been playing for six or seven years. The drummer, Newman Taylor Baker, just came into the trio a couple of years ago. He’s played with Ahmad Jamal, Billy Harper and McCoy Tyner. He’s right in the middle of the language. And the funny thing is, he lived in Philadelphia and Wilmington, and played in Philly with Monette Sudler. I use to follow him around in Wilmington. So, it’s so bizarre that he lives on Third Street in my neighborhood in New York and he’s in my trio. He’s a natural for where we’re at.
So, with a supportive record label and a devoted legion of fans, why are you putting a moratorium on recording?
I really don’t see where I can go with it any further. I have a deep, deep catalog. Every time I sit at the [piano], I still feel the fire. But as far as me trying to generate a head space and a structure around putting out a recording … I’m probably losing the fire for that. DB