Intended as a series of self-reflective solo piano studies, Matthew Shipp’s latest release, I’ve Been to Many Places, carries with it a meditative quality that finds the artist assessing his career and creative output up until this point and filtering it through a solo lens. On the title track, he alternates between quiet beauty and aggressive dissonance to illustrate both his more lyrical periods and those spent firmly entrenched in the avant-garde alongside such giants in the field as David S. Ware, William Parker and Roscoe Mitchell. Using where he is now to reflect upon where he has been, Shipp is able to place a finer focus on his singular voice and style, allowing the rhythm and melody to develop in non-traditional, often dissonant ways that help further establish his significance on the contemporary jazz scene.
Shipp’s take on “Summertime”, the perennial standard he originally cut with Parker as a duet, here deconstructs the melody, lending it an almost classical, albeit highly fractured, heavily contrapuntal quality during the solo section that, through a series of seemingly random stabs, hints at the ghost of the melody as the left hand rumbles along on the low end, allowing for maximum string resonance as if conjuring the memory of the long-ago duet between Shipp and bassist Parker. This funhouse mirror approach to the well-known Gershwin piece, one of several covers on this otherwise largely original set, shows off Shipp’s skills both as performer and interpreter of others’ material.
With a highly idiosyncratic approach to the instrument, Shipp often sounds as though he’s jabbing his hands at random, letting his subconscious do the heavy lifting and channeling his musical spirit through his fingers as they splay across the keys, producing fragments of recognizable chord structures and melodies amidst the disorienting display. “Brain Stem Grammer” [sic] is perhaps the best example of this as notes fly seemingly at random, only occasionally coming into focus, often only for a moment or two before dissolving back into perceived chaos. It’s a thrilling approach that lends the tune an appropriately unhinged feel lacking in more formal, traditional studied settings.
Elsewhere, “Tenderly” is rendered anything but, with its fragmented left hand work juxtaposed with a disjointed reading of the right hand melody that lends the track an unsettling feeling that, when taken as a whole, sounds largely random and more a jumbled mess. But upon closer listen, the significance of each note is gradually gleaned as distinct, albeit often rhythmically contrary figures begin to develop, playing off of one another and pushing the song ever onward in a highly compelling framework that betrays the song’s initial seeming randomness.
It is in this stripped-down setting and under closer inspection that the true nature of Shipp’s genius can be fully parsed and appreciated as it quickly becomes clear that a great deal of thought and structure goes into even the most seemingly chaotic passages. Melodically and rhythmically, Shipp operates at a higher level, his largely contrapuntal style allowing the left hand to play off the right and vice versa, lending an often classical quality to what he plays, exploring non-traditional melodic structures one moment and well-known melodies the next.
Perhaps the best example of this is on the appropriately named “Brain Shatter”, wherein Shipp’s right hand is constantly at odds with his left, both frenetically flying across the keys, occasionally landing on recognizable chords, but largely eschewing any sort of traditional unison melodic structure in favor of a sound and feel that, when closely examined, exposes a highly compelling, extremely intricate song structure that, due to the abundance of and speed at which the notes come through, can be lost in casual listening.
As he did with “Summertime”, Shipp explores the full potential of the melody of Coltrane’s “Naima”, deconstructing it for a solo section that finds him in a contemplative mood full of swirling melodic passages and stately left hand work. Only briefly hinting at the melody, Shipp quickly devolves into a piece of his own making, carrying with it an air of urgency that, as the solo section reaches its climax, gradually eases up and slots comfortably back into the melody, opting to ascend the trailing end of the melody rather than the descending form taken in the original. In this minor variation, Shipp firmly makes the song his own, recasting it in his own image and making one wish for an entire album of him tackling the works of Coltrane.
Unlike many solo piano discs, I’ve Been to Many Places demands one’s complete attention in order to grasp fully both what Shipp is looking to do and has to say. While never caustic nor truly bombastic, the music here is unquestionably firmly rooted in the avant-garde and should be approached as such, afforded the careful listening and attention all great artists deserve. Stripped to their basest elements, the songs take on a whole new life apart from their original context, affording us a chance to hear where he’s been translated through where he is now as both an interpreter and performer. By no means a victory lap or a career capper, I’ve Been To Many Places serves merely as a mid-career assessment of where he’s been and where we may find him in the coming years.