As an art form, jazz has been around long enough for people to be led to believe that it comes with a certain code of conduct. The ones who want you to believe that are also likely to want to preserve the genre in its mid-20th century form. To them, constant musical evolution is for the accident-prone and the reckless. Yet Matthew Shipp, one of the more distinct composers and forward-thinking pianists of the blessedly cluttered post-bop landscape, went and named his album The Conduct of Jazz. To be clear, Shipp isn’t all about obliterating the past in order to point a way to the future. Like all sensible musicians who had the courage to carve out their own voice in this bloated world, he’s plucking a few of yesterday’s flowers out of the ground while he strolls confidently into tomorrow. The album’s title track has very unmistakable echoes of Duke Ellington in the rhythms and Thelonious Monk in the harmonies, but “The Conduct of Jazz” sure doesn’t sound like a throwback.
Neither does Matthew Shipp’s new trio, which features drummer Newman Taylor Baker and bassist Nichael Bisio. Instead of just keeping a beat, Baker responds to the music filling the air around him and complimenting it in a variety of ways, including mimicking Shipp’s rhythms on his cymbals. Bisio fills the standard roll of double bassist for the album’s first two tracks just fine, but the bowing technique he uses to start “Ball in Space” is almost dangerous with its use of overtones. Tension is built with Baker’s mallets on the cymbals, then that tension is broken by Shipp making sudden thunder cracks on his keyboard. This “Ball in Space”, presumably the earth, is one tumultuous sounding rock, and the saga of the elements probably would have sounded sheepish in the hands of another band.
As a writer, Matthew Shipp has that unique ability to string together a series of notes and chords in such a way that 1) you nearly stop what you’re doing, 2) you have difficulty in your mind qualifying the music as “jazz”, and 3) you never forget the melodies and harmonies, no matter how odd they may be. Opener “Instinctive Touch” walks in the Shipp tradition of past numbers like “Gesture”, “Space Shipp”, and “New Orbit” where just a few well-placed notes evokes a deep, towering structure. Being neither major nor minor, the main figure in “Primary Form” dangles unresolved in the midst of a chamber jazz breakdown that allows for a rather unorthodox solo from the drum kit. “Blue Abyss”, true to its title, encapsulates both groove and mystery. Final track “The Bridge Across” seems to embody an entire jazz set within its 12-minute run time. When you quantify the rises and falls, the structures and the jams, the quiet and the loud all within this one track that makes up 24 percent of the album, you may need a nap after listening.
Matthew Shipp has, by and large, spent a few decades meeting the high expectations he has cultivated for himself. With each new release, be it solo or with a different trio, he seems to pluck music from the air that sounds so fresh and inviting yet we feel like we should have heard it all somewhere before. It’s easy to believe that anyone would have a finite amount of music of that caliber within them, but The Conduct of Jazz shows that Matthew Shipp is not destined to be one of them.
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