Equilibrium Is Stasis
This new record from pianist Matthew Shipp carries a pretty heavy burden. First of all, it’s by Matthew Shipp. His name is pretty much synonymous with “Cool Modern Jazz Intellectual” these days; not only is he insanely prolific as a leader (last year’s Nu Bop is still resonating in the jazz/DJ world, and reviews for his next one, Matthew Shipp vs. Anti Pop Consortium, are already starting to appear) and as a sideman (David S. Ware Quartet, etc.), but he is also the “curator” of Thirsty Ear’s “Blue Series” releases. Composer! Musician! Tastemaker! Dude is all over the map.
The Blue Series itself is also responsible for some of the Big Deal-ness of Equilibrium. This series, one of the most high-profile new initiatives in jazz in a decade, is supposed to be aiming to discover what jazz music is all about, and what music can be accepted into “the jazz world” and what can’t. Artists as different as DJ Spooky and Guillermo E. Brown have issued discs on this series, but its most prolific musician so far (no surprises here) has been its curator. So every single Blue Series record is aiming to discover a new definition of jazz music. That’s a hard row to hoe.
Equilibrium is also pretty important because of Shipp’s own claims for it. In the liner notes, he talks about this as the “synthesis of what I’ve learned from all my other Blue Series albums”. Considering these albums have taken on jazz-as-new-music (Pastoral Composure), jazz-as-ambient-music (New Orbit), and jazz-as-breakbeat (Nu Bop), he’s loading Equilibrium up with more baggage than any 41-minute jazz album should have to carry.
His lineup is also ambitious on this record. In addition to regular associate Parker on bass, he’s got funky drummer Gerald Cleaver, the DJ we met on Nu Bop who calls himself FLAM (real first name: Chris), and the 55-year-old vibist Khan Jamal. Multi-generational, multi-genre, multi-everything—this is a hell of a band.
Shipp is also fairly audacious in the way this LP is structured. The first four songs, which would represent Side One on vinyl, are linked in a couple of different thematic ways. (Warning: I have almost no Serious Muso Vocabulary, so I’m just going on what I hear. Sorry if there’s any mixups.) The title track is also the opener, a piece of almost neo-classical ambient jazzstuff. A main haunting melody is introduced on piano, capped by a ringing four-note motif, repeated twice; these, however, do not really form the main body of “Equilibrium”, but are just occasionally (and randomly) repeated by Shipp. The other musicians wander in and chase each other around for a while, but cannot save this from being a gentle but aimless piece that refuses to settle into the memory. Jamal’s relentless soloing fails to take charge, Cleaver remains in tap-tap mode, and FLAM is nowhere to be heard. Shipp and Parker appear to be on each other’s wavelengths, but no one else sounds engaged to me. It reminds me that equilibrium, in chemical terms, is stasis—I get through the whole thing without hearing much chemistry at all.
The next track, “Vamp to Vibe”, is the most perfectly-named thing on the record. It consists mainly of one Shipp piano riff—or maybe a loop of that riff—and its corresponding funky rhythm courtesy of Cleaver and Parker. And that’s pretty much it. Again, Jamal spends the whole track vibing over the vamp; he’s a talented fellow, to be sure, but there’s nothing really to his work here, no emotion or planning or sonic inventiveness, and the mix makes sure that he’s out there on his own. Oh, yeah: every once in a while, Shipp hits a mutated version of that secondary four-note theme from the song before. That will be important later.
“Nebula Theory” is just, well, a nebula (Marsalisese for “free” playing where everyone is listening to each other rather than just going off individually), but it sounds engaged. Parker’s bowing is the underpinning, providing Jamal something to hang his horror-movie descending chords on, and Cleaver’s martial rolls and occasional gong hits make things all creepy.
Then we are shocked to hear all the fat being pulled out of the fire on “Cohesion”. It starts with that same four-note theme from Shipp, and then the kind of funky rhythm work that we heard on “Vamp to Vibe”, and we get a kind of free nebula-lite breakdown a couple of times during the course of the piece, only to be pulled back from the brink. With such a strong base (a track that actually sounds like everyone’s involved!) Shipp and Jamal’s solo work is actually placed in context here as it really catches fire a couple times. I guess the other pieces have all been set-ups for this startling summation of all the other songs we’ve heard so far. Oh, and we finally have aural evidence that FLAM is still in the building, with some subtle scratching that actually means something when the band starts to burn at the end. It’s a mission statement, but it comes when some listeners might have already checked out.
The rest of the disc must be considered a Side Two of sorts, but it’s tied together neither thematically nor stylistically. “World of Blue Glass” returns to the title track’s formula: pretty Jarrett-esque melodic work from Shipp, supported by Parker and Cleaver. (Jamal cannot be heard here, and FLAM is, again, out having a smoke, or being so subtle as to actually not exist.) By the time things have turned to Quartet West territory for the second half, it has become beautiful and portentous, but nothing that couldn’t be done by any other jazz group.
The same could be said for the rest of the songs here. The swinging one-minute trifle “Portal” ushers in “The Root”, which then focuses that energy into a very modern acid-jazz groove courtesy of FLAM and Cleaver. This song (which might or might not also contain a debased version of the four-note theme) reminds me a lot of a hip-hop remix of the Modern Jazz Quartet: it’s undeniably fun and dancey, but it’s hardly the edge of the jazz envelope. I feel the same way about “The Key”, which is pretty much a straight-up copy of work already done by the Bobby Hutcherson/Harold Land quintet in the late 1960s. Everyone here is really really good, but I don’t know what makes it all Blue Series. More like Blue Note, and not as original.
And everything grinds to a halt, or, rather, spirals off into the ether, with the free Tangerine Dream redux of “Nu Matrix”, with FLAM seizing the means of production to interject some spacy ambience under Jamal’s wind-chime stabs. By the time Shipp enters halfway through, we’re just hearing what happens when music lives in the head rather than the heart.
I fervently hope that Shipp finds what he’s looking for. But I don’t think he’s going to find it as long as he’s comfortable with mere Equilibrium and Cohesion.