Matthew Shipp, Ivo Perelman Discuss Art, Language and Legacy

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Matthew Shipp (left) and Ivo Perelman perform at the Chicago Jazz Festival in August along with William Parker and Bobby Kapp.

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

They grew up thousands of miles apart, but still found each other and seem to share a bond over TV shows like The Time Tunnel and Lost In Space.

Pianist Matthew Shipp and saxophonist Ivo Perelman have been improvising together since the early 1990s; their first encounter set to tape in a New York studio. But the pair recently embarked on an impressive mission: to record and release eight albums of spontaneous performances as a single box set on Leo Records. And while the clutch of discs isn’t set for release until next year, Shipp and Perelman performed together at the Chicago Jazz Festival in August, alongside bassist William Parker and drummer Bobby Kapp. That quartet issued Heptagon (Leo) in 2017 and is set to release an album through ESP-Disk’ in the coming months.

Shipp and Perelman sat down after their festival performance to discuss how art feeds their work, their collaborative aspirations and how they each are considering their legacies.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Do you need art adventures outside of jazz to propel your music?

Matthew Shipp: I would say, yes, because jazz as a construct is a limited thing. And everything is a language; this tree is a language, the wind is a language. I’m interested in the existence of everything—and why it exists, and that definitely fits into the artistic impulse. Why just deal with blue notes, because that’s a cliched notion of jazz? Why not the rhythm of a boxing match? Or the rhythm of a poem or a tree.

Ivo Perelman: I think jazz is the ultimate human expression of art that has to do with sheer creativity. Jazz has nothing to do with jazz. Jazz ultimately is a cry for human freedom; that’s how it started and that’s how it will always be. Everything else is bullshit … jazz magazines. I was born playing the way I play now, but it took me 50 years to realize and get mature. It’s not about the scales or John Coltrane. It’s about getting to the center of my vibrational being.

MS: Once you become a jazz musician, you’re dealing with the mechanics of jazz. But if you’re an artist, you’re always looking past the actual prescribed idiom to try and think what you’re about.

That’s the interesting thing about our society: You’re taught to distrust your natural self. But your natural self is the closest thing to you. Because of all the stuff you’re indoctrinated with, it takes years to get past what’s thrust upon you. All the practicing, all the theory is great—and necessary. But you have to add some aspect of your own mind to get back to your pure self.

Do you feel like you’re accessing something beyond the accepted language of jazz during collaborations?

MS: We’ve established a very specific approach and a language that’s open at the top. It’s definitely based on a non-idiomatic thing. While we’re both jazz musicians—and he understands Dexter Gordon and Coleman Hawkins, and I understand Monk and all that—we have no desire to fit into a prescribed idea of what a jazz musician is.

I grew up a classical musician; he did, too. He understands my dread of classical music. There’s sound, a note, attack, then you create music. Our understanding of jazz, his Brazilian things, my classical things and his, get melded into a vortex of our specific language.

IP: One aspect of our work that strikes me as astonishing is that we have as much faith in each other as we have in the scholars, in the founding forebears of this music. I love Coleman Hawkins. I love melodies—I’m from Brazil. But we come from the same place; that’s amazing. We have parallels in our lives, as crazy as it sounds.

What’s the aspiration of your partnership?

IP: The music.

MS: Just to play.

IP: We don’t play cards.

MS: The aspiration of life is to live. It’s just to play. That’s what it gets down to. There’s no secret, mystical agenda. Playing with him is very natural and easy.

I’m asking, because you’re releasing eight albums of improv together. That’s an Anthony Braxton level of output.

MS: The proliferation of recordings is due to our position in the jazz industry. It allows us to do that and be boxed out of other things. You’re talking to us at a major festival, but in America, we don’t get major festivals. It’s just when you do this type of music, you don’t have a certain type of record contract with a label, where they have exclusivity. That’s basically what we have: doing a lot of recordings on smaller labels and getting our names out.

And for my piece, I play with a lot of people as a sideman. It’s a chance to make a living. A bunch of smaller paydays equals something.

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