Matthew Shipp is a jazz pianist with downtown/indie credibility. No cocktail pianist he, but a knotty artist—once profiled by The New York Times as courting a rock audience. A rebel of the ivories.
Of course, that’s all just marketing talk. The reality, particularly today, is that the division between “traditional” and “avant garde” playing long ago washed away. And if Shipp’s resume—as the pianist for saxophonist David S. Ware and as a frequent collaborator with downtown doyen William Parker—places him more on the “outside”, then one can’t forget his training in harmony at music school and his flair for blues and groove.
And then there was his last Thirsty Ear album, 2007’s Piano Vortex, in which he seemed to look in a new way at the jazz piano tradition. With bassist Joe Morris and drummer Whit Dickey, Shipp traded extensively in swing rhythm and blues lyricism on Vortex. Without jettisoning the darker, free side of his playing, Shipp got back to straight acoustic playing and did not shy away from using the devices of piano trio jazz from the 1950s and 1960s. Evoking Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk, Shipp put some of the jazz delight back into his universe.
Harmonic Disorder brings the Vortex trio back into the studio, again asking Dickey and Morris to play with the touch and spring of vintage jazzmen, rather than the pure daring of jazz avant garde-ists. Indeed, this time Shipp also includes two jazz standard chestnuts in the set list: “There Will Never Be Another You” and “Someday My Prince Will Come”.
Wait. “Someday My Prince Will Come” on a Matthew Shipp recording? Is this some kind of middle-aged retreat to tradition? What is wonderful about Harmonic Disorder is that Shipp has not put his trio in reverse, even though you can recognize these tunes. This is neither nostalgia nor safety, but it is an integration of Shipp’s modern language with the grammar of the previous generation of jazz piano. As such, this new phase of Shipp’s career would seem to be even more ambitious and more daring than the years in which he simply went his own way.
The trio plays the standards unconventionally without exploding them. “There Will Never Be Another You” is delivered at extreme tempo, with Shipp’s right hand playing the melody freely in the piano’s middle range, while his left hand tumbles in the lower register. The bass and drums play a coherent but free time that swings hard but rough, and there is little sense of traditional chordal movement, but rather a feeling that the tune’s melody is being played by everyone in his own way. “Prince”, as you might imagine, is taken as a ballad, but with a clear statement of chords by Shipp’s left hand. The rhythm section skitters and bobs, but it plays a kind of ornamented time, and so when Shipp improvises, his own freedom from the usual jazz idioms makes sense. Still, as the melody returns—and it does so more than once—it does not feel like a tacked-on contrast or an afterthought. Playing “Valentine” or “Another You” this way, it turns out, is not wrong but simply a different choice.
If you want to hear the trio play more like one led by Bill Evans or Elmo Hope, actually, you have to turn to the original tunes. “Mr. JM”, a duet feature for Morris and Shipp, asks Morris to walk as if he were Tommy Potter or Paul Chambers. Using a loose set of blues chord changes, Shipp plays quicksilver lines over the bass work. Though he employs harmonically ambiguity in creating these improvised statements, Shipp plays with logic and a swinging attack. The effect is a kind of refraction of tradition. “Roe” is even more in the bag: Morris walks again, and Dickey plays a prescribed swing feeling that would be at home on virtually any Blue Note disc from the 1960s. Shipp plays Tyner-ish chords that crash and cry but remain solidly conventional, and the melody is… well… catchy. “Light” is even more in the pocket—with Shipp running a hip, repetitive motif through his solo as Dickey and Morris seem to be auditioning for the classic Miles Davis Quintet.
On other originals, it is plain that Shipp has a certain accessible lyricism on his mind, even if there is no walking bassline. “When the Curtain Falls on the Jazz Theatre” is ominous, with dark, long bowed bass notes and an episodic snare roll, but the melody is inviting and dramatic. “Quantum Waves” trades in a series of rising and irregular arpeggios on the piano, answered by haunting arco bass statements. “Mel Chi 2” consists of very beautiful arpeggios that simply become more lush and pretty as they repeat, and “Mel Chi 2” substitutes descending chords and grooving Afro-Cuban accompaniment. All of these tunes are riveting and interesting, even though they do not significantly push the envelope.
All across Harmonic Disorder, Matthew Shipp is finding ways to blend his envelope-pushing with the sense of conventional order that reigned in piano trio music for a few decades. It is a measure of this program’s success that the blend feels true and organic, not stitched together. Perhaps this is not so much pure innovation as a return to a moment in jazz history when pianists like Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley were working their way toward freedom. Taylor’s early records found him partly tethered to tradition, even as he strove to bend it. Now Matthew Shipp, at the other end of jazz piano history, is finding ways to rope his trio to the shore, even as it still sails with great freedom. This is an exciting and daring bit of navigation.