Matthew Shipp, Restless Visionary Behind the Blue Series

In October, the film Boxing and Jazz debuted at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis. The film was a disappointment, a digital video production that looked like the efforts of a teen-ager with an iMac and a couple of hours on his hand.

But the music, performed by the Matthew Shipp Trio live as the film played, was fantastic, melding the need for congruity with the film and the desire for improvisational fire that fuels much of Shipp’s work. It was another example in a long line of them during 2003 that Matthew Shipp may be not only our most valuable jazz musician right now, but also perhaps one of our most powerful catalysts for creativity.

In the film, shots of boxers are intercut with those of Shipp’s trio — which also includes bassist William Parker and drummer Guillermo E. Brown — rehearsing. Shipp also is seen for extended periods shadow boxing, dancing around on the sidewalk outside a gym, sparring with the air. You could call that an apt visual metaphor for Shipp, of course, the artist dancing around fitfully as he tries new thing after new thing. But the film more fittingly makes the point for Shipp’s creativity in the very absence of creativity on the screen, a sad fact highlighted by the juxtaposition with the three musicians creating on the spot on the stage below.

Shipp is the most adventurous, prolific jazz musician out there, bar none. That’s saying something in a genre that, at least on its fringes, is made up almost exclusively of adventurous, prolific types. The closest competition comes in the form of frequent collaborators like Parker.

His recent burst of creativity is most easily seen in the growing catalog of releases in Thirsty Ear Records’ “Blue Series”. With that series, Shipp has done more to explore the far reaches of jazz in the past five years than any other artist. Shipp announced a retirement from recording just four years ago, saying he “felt wasted as a recording artist.” With 17 albums as a leader and many more as a sideman in a 12-year career at that point, it was an understandable if disappointing announcement.

After a brief pause between releases, however, he resumed recording. He began curating the Blue Series, and inaugurated the series with his return to recording, Pastoral Composure.

The time away, however brief, seemed to have liberated Shipp. Pastoral Composure showed that Shipp, while one of those pushing hardest at the envelope of free jazz, had a keen ear for melody. It was a gorgeous collection of classic piano quartet jazz freed from the dense, discordant arrangements of his past.

Subsequent Blue Series releases maintained that sense of melody while venturing out in other ways. New Orbit revisited Shipp’s complex compositional structures within the melodic framework of his more recent work, while last year’s Nu Bop added hip-hop beats and samples to the mix.

In the past year, he has either been directly involved with or has at least overseen eight outstanding entries in the Blue Series. These discs can be roughly divided into two categories. The first involve DJs, who use the jazz players and their music as the raw materials for something that is both beyond jazz and expands jazz at the same time, the other more traditional combos. Each continues to push at the boundaries of jazz, and often the releases involve these two groups meeting on some common ground that is apart from what either could do alone.

The former category builds on experimental collaborations with DJ Spooky and Anti-Pop Consortium that were among the most rewarding discs of 2002. The latter finds Shipp and a cast of usual suspects — Parker, David S. Ware, Tim Berne, and others — playing free jazz in increasingly forward thinking contexts.

Shipp is all over this stuff. After a flurry of solo releases under the Blue Series banner (and a couple outside it), none of the recent discs are under his name. Still, his fingerprints are all over almost all of them; he performs on six of the eight and his compositions are integral to four.

The four DJ-related discs find Shipp in collaboration with Spring Heel Jack, GoodandEvil, DJ Wally and FLAM.

Spring Heeled Jack follows two studio-bound Blue Series discs — Massed and Amassed, which both find the duo offering a bedrock of sounds over which jazz and rock players, including Shipp once again, improvise — with a live disc that takes that premise to the stage for a show that blends the lightning-quick reflexes of the DJs with the spontaneous creativity of the live players. The disc is a marvel, because the DJs, while adding extra sounds, also loop and manipulate what the musicians throw out there, throwing it right back in ever evolving ways.

Even within these two camps — DJs and traditional combos — there is a great deal of variety. The DJ Wally disc feels more DJ-like, to coin a phrase. It uses jazz as an element rather than a sound. The GoodandEvil sessions, in contrast, are jazzier, seeming to let the original compositions stand more completely with quite bit of augmentation. Then again, that may simply mean this is the most successful of the bunch, a seamless collection, a nice dish that doesn’t betray all that went into its creation. Roy Campbell is a standout here, his trumpet a focal point throughout.

The Blue Series Continuum is billed as a rotating cast with no leader, but surprise, it features all Shipp compositions. The band is the interesting thing here. It includes Bang on a Can member Evan Ziporyn on clarinet, and classical performer Daniel Bernard Roumain on violin. FLAM, a frequent collaborator, adds programming and synth work to create a disc that bridges the gap between the DJ discs and the more traditional band recordings.

Despite the lack of electronics, the other four discs in the Blue Series this year are no less creative or energetic. The earliest is a two-disc set — one CD, one DVD — with performances from the 2002 Vision Festival in New York. The disc features Shipp, Ware, Parker and many others, performing with a number of guests that provide valuable context for the rest of the Blue Series. AACM member Fred Anderson leads one quartet with Kidd Jordan, while violinist Billy Bang leads another. The DVD, while offering a somewhat static view of the performances, is valuable for those of us in the 90 percent of the country who rarely have the chance to see these musicians perform.

The other three discs offer clear vision themselves, the singular view of three top performers. Parker’s disc Scrapbook and Ware’s Threads, each incorporate strings. Parker’s bass is augmented by Bang’s violin in a trio with drummer Hamid Drake. The songs are beautifully lyrical and challenging at the same time, more melodic than one expects from this line-up. Ware’s disc, which finds his usual quartet of Parker, Brown and Shipp joined by Mat Maneri on Viola and Roumain on violin, features a set of compositions that show more structure than one usually finds on Ware’s recordings. The combination of composition and strings works, creating what is one of the best discs of Ware’s career.

The eighth disc in the series this year comes from Tim Berne and his longtime backing trio, Science Friction. It and Parker’s disc are the only two among the eight that don’t feature Shipp performing. The disc The Sublime And, is no less for that. It is an adventurous two-CD set recorded live in Switzerland, fueled by Berne’s fiery saxophone soloing and Marc Ducret’s fierce guitar. Craig Taborn, who has an earlier Blue Series standout of his own, keeps the melody in mind with his keyboards.

Through all of these releases, it is clear that Shipp is at the forefront of an amazing group of musicians who are restless charting new waters in jazz. Whether those forays come in the form of composing in lieu of improvisation, the addition of strings and electronics, or the willingness to turn songs over to DJs who will create something new from the assembled parts, Shipp has tried it all this year.

Even when those experiments ultimately fail, as did Boxing and Jazz, there is plenty to salvage from the wreckage. And as the Blue Series moves into 2004 with a planned disc by independent rap star El-P and who knows what else, Shipp has offered a few hints as to where he’s headed. All we can ask for is a hint so we can be there when he arrives.