Matthew Shipp has been pushing at the boundaries of jazz piano for a couple of decades, and time is giving him a kind of refinement. Not that he is getting soft. Shipp still plays with a daring harmonic ambiguity, combining free jazz flourish with classical bombast and urgent lyricism. His recordings have explored electronics, standards, dissonance, and folk music. But on 4D, his latest solo piano disc for Thirsty Ear’s “Blue Series” (which Shipp curates), his various impulses seem focused and singular. This is as clear a statement of vision as any musician could hope for.
Solo jazz piano is always risky. It’s not just that it takes real musicianship to make the solo recital interesting over a full hour. But jazz typically thrives on a certain minimum of dialogue: the give-and-take with a drummer, the soloist/accompanist dynamic, the pulse that can only come from competing rhythms in a single aural space. Even with two talented hands, a solo jazz pianist can be a bore. The art comes off best when the pianist makes a virtue of focus or intimacy. Bill Evans was brilliant, but so was Art Tatum. Keith Jarrett wrote his meal-ticket with it, but McCoy Tyner has been no slouch. Each knew specifically what he was about.
Matthew Shipp has his mission front and center on 4D. He plays with the deep lyricism of a free musician. He is as focused on melody and feeling as he is on texture or energy, but still his rhythm is always exciting. “Equilibrium” begins with a series of delicate arpeggios, harmonized slyly and with the subtlest dissonance. It is beautiful but, more than that, it is beguiling. This is what Shipp does so well: he seduces your ears without condescending to them. He makes an off-balance kind of beauty.
Shipp handles his Thelonious Monk influence with similar intrigue. Both “The Crack in the Piano’s Egg” and “Teleportation” have the angular melodies and lurching rhythms of Monk, but neither comes off as aping the master. “Crack” walks a perfect line between stride feel and free playing, all the while using repeated licks that simulate Monk with a jagged joy. This tune swings with a grrrrrrowl. “Teleportation” is similar, but not too similar, also lurching into a cool, laughing kind of swing. This time, however, Shipp lets the performance move into a more ruminative direction, with the squiggles of his right hand seeming like curious spirals, and then suddenly the thump of rhythm returns.
As on his last recording, Harmonic Disorder, Shipp approaches several standards from new angles. “What Is This Thing Called Love?” is played uptempo and with a grooving low bass-line that gives the tune an undeniable funk. While the melody is recognizable and the left-hand line is consonant, the usual sequence of chord changes is only hinted at, resulting in an intricate melody that strains against a more static harmony, which results in a daring tension in the performance.
A more traditional harmonic approach works for “Autumn Leaves” and “Prelude to a Kiss”. “Kiss” is almost entirely “straight” for the statement of the main theme, then Shipp lets it swirl free on the bridge. Two improvisations are extremely brief, following the second and third statements of the theme. “Leaves” is also short, with the harmonies followed carefully, but with the time feeling much freer and more explosive — left-hand clusters of notes shove the right-hand melody into ecstasy without sacrificing the shape of the form.
Shipp’s approach to some traditional tunes shows another side of his work. “Frere Jacques” is, indeed, that goofy French tune, but played quickly over a shifting harmonic footing in a thudding, insistent way. Shipp gets the most hammer out of his piano here, the strings ringing open and hard, the overtones building up a true sense of echo. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is a played as a straight hymn over a droning harmony in less than a minute, leading to a beautiful rumination in “Primal Harmonic”, the bridge to “Greensleeves”. “Primal Harmonic” finds Shipp exploring impressionist harmony like a psychedelic Bill Evans, weaving a needle of melody with darting motion. “Greensleeves” then returns him to declamation and simplicity. The theme is played with standard voicings, but an increasingly flailing attack and rhythm. It ends the record on a burst of energy.
4D is an ideal showcase for so many of the gifts that Matthew Shipp has brought to us in the last 20 years. Happily, it never feels like a grab-bag or pu-pu platter. Because Shipp weaves his characteristic styles around each other — and always with generous heaps of melody — this solo recital comes off like a thrilling suite of music rather than merely another date. To use some old terminology based on the old technology, 4D is truly an “album”. It was obviously planned with care, making a pianistic movie in the head of a listener. At times it’s a thriller, and at times it seems like a super-smart date movie.
It’s always Matthew Shipp. Let’s hope that rumors of this being his last recording are nothing but ridiculous. This music, from the delicate to the pounding, is the generous work of a master musician.