There are jazz pianists, and there is Matthew Shipp. The guy actually has three hands: two to play the piano and one to thumb his nose at tradition. He’s got quite a mouth too, though it never seems to get him into a whole lot of trouble: “Fuck Herbie Hancock; fuck Wayne Shorter. On a certain level, fuck Louis Armstrong,” he said in an interview last year, accusing old veterans of becoming complacent in old age. Perhaps he gets away with it all because he plays the piano so well – and so inventively.
Shipp turned 50 last year and released an album of solo piano music to mark the occasion. 4D‘s mix of original pieces and pillaged standards received some pretty good press, even if it wasn’t a total wildcard of a gauntlet like his past work. Going with this momentum, Shipp played out a number of times, and Art of the Improviser is the result. The first disc is a five-song set performed by his trio of Michael Bisio on bass and Whit Dickey on drums, while the second disc is a solo set two months afterward. Together, they remind listeners everywhere that Matthew Shipp is a freak force of nature when he sits down at the piano. Yeah, what was Louis Armstrong doing when he turned 50?
One thing that separates Shipp from the rest of the ivory pack, and is on full display with the leadoff track “The New Fact”, is the way he plays within this minor mode that reminds you of no other jazz tunes you’ve heard before. It’s a bit classical, rather spooky, and reminds me of his New Orbit releases when he was surrounded by a couple of horns. The real challenge is “Take the A Train”, which you seriously might miss if you’re not paying attention. What is otherwise considered one of the most recognizable melodies from the swing era gets totally wrecked into something that sounds like a Schoenberg 12-tone piece rearranged for jazz trio. Shipp isn’t the only one bending the rules on these songs since Michael Bisio takes what sounds like an ordinary bass solo and sometimes stretches it into a long, bowing segue into the next number.
That’s another peculiar thing with Art of the Improviser; there is no stopping between tunes. Not on the first disc with the trio, and not with the second disc with the solo piano. The crowds give applause at appropriate times, but they are never given a chance to get on their feet until the end. Most of the time, the second disc feels more like a blob of music than six different tracks. You really have to keep an eye on the track index to tell when “4D” ends and “Fly Me to the Moon” begins. Hopefully this doesn’t distract people from the overall quality of the solo disc since Shipp’s improvisation skills all by his lonesome can seriously give Keith Jarrett a run for his money. Lyricism reigns the day on “Wholetone” and “Module”, while the shifting tonality of “Gamma Ray” strains the audience’s ears. In a good way, of course.
As Matthew Shipp heads into his ’50s, it’s clear that he’s on a roll. 4D and Art of the Improviser aren’t the sound of Shipp murdering jazz, just the sound of him quickly summing up his career before moving on. If this is a place at which one can arrive when they turn 50, just think of the future possibilities.