Matthew Shipp: Piano Sutras

Solo piano pieces, short and dynamic, by the iconoclastic and brilliant jazz player—increasingly sounding like a classic, mature player for the ages.

Matthew Shipp

Piano Sutras

Label: Thirsty Ear
US Release Date: 2013-09-24
UK Release Date: 2013-09-24

Matthew Shipp caught ears when he was playing with saxophonist David S. Ware and bassist William Parker, but it soon became clear that this pianist—who will turn 53 this year—was wholly his own man. He formed a great trio, he became the curator of a recording series, he experimented with electronics, he dove back into jazz standards and he developed into a wholly original player in the solo piano history of jazz. He is one of the few jazz musicians of the new millennium to generate ink suggesting that jazz was developing an appeal among rock fans.

What do you want this guy to do next?

Rumors that he might retire turned out to be false. And, in fact, his latest release—a stunning solo piano recital—may just be a classic, the kind of record we talk about and play for each other decades later. Piano Sutras is a glorious, generous, fully mature expression of creativity that could only have come from one artist. It is as good and adventurous as jazz is going to sound in 2013.

These 13 tracks (two, “Giant Steps” and “Nefertiti”, were not written by Shipp) are relatively brief and focused pianistic essays. They cover a wide stylistic range, but each is driven by a logic or strong sense of sequence. They don’t typically sound like standard jazz—there no “tune”, variations on the tune, return to the tune sequence—but neither are they “free jazz” in any meaningful sense. Shipp, in this collection, has refined a style that allows composition and improvisation to work seamlessly as partners, seemingly indistinguishable. Could this be some kind of “modern classical music”? I guess so, except that Shipp remains a jazz player at his core: emphasizing the surging rhythms and blues sensibility that remain the core of great original American music, whatever name you want to give it.

“Cosmic Shuffle” is not alone in Shipp’s recent music in being driven by a core swing rhythm, his left hand “walking” like an upright bass in places but never restricted to that feeling. The whole piece is as swung as hard any Count Basie performance, but it swings beyond the usual rules of structure and convention, taking detours into moments of contemplation before heading back into free-wheeling call-and-response patterns that would make Jimmie Lunceford smile. Or check out (the related?) “Cosmic Dust”, which uses surges and shifts in tempo every few bars to create a feeling of manic momentum. The daring squiggles—what a previous generation might have called licks or riffs—that he generates in these tunes seems free of cliché but also tonal within his own system. That is, “Cosmic Dust” is really as accessible to the untutored ear as a solo by, say, Chick Corea, as long as you’re not looking for the usual Tin Pan Alley harmonic patterns that jazz piano relied on until Cecil Taylor and other like-minded pianists declared otherwise. Shipp works that vein with a sense of structured classicism.

Some of this work has a dramatic foreboding. “Uncreated Light” begins with alternation between dark low clusters and pretty high chords. Shipp lets his left-hand figures ring with overtones, the sustain suggesting music beyond what you can hear. A spiraling theme then emerges in his delicate right hand between the thunderous statements from below. It’s easy to imagine this music accompanying a scene of danger imposing on innocence from a suspense movie, perhaps.

Other songs here are as light as air. “Angelic Brain Cell” is like a post-modern minuet—a light dance piece that flitters and skips and suggests the spark of movement and intelligence in every note. Patterns of repetition arise and vanish, Licks turn into variation, unison lines grow quickly out of phase and then transform into counterpoint. It is an astonishing, ingenious performance.

Shipp’s takes on the two jazz standards are also riveting. “Giant Steps” is set out as a delicate ballad, with Shipp’s control of harmony and his sustain pedal on display. He just plays it once, no improvising, like a psalm or a love song. “Nefertiti” is also played with a sense of respect—the questioning melody absolutely intact—but Shipp also explores the tune as a challenge for his pianism, moving through it in waves of arpeggios that suggest Liszt as much as Wayne Shorter.

I think so much of Piano Sutras because it reaches into me and brings me pleasure and recognition and surprise. “The Indivisible” ends the collection with crashing bass notes and rolling tremolo, with delicate rising interludes and splashes of light in the form of sudden high octaves. It sounds to me like a mountain climber and a deep-sea diver, like a person coming to terms with herself and like a history of a music suddenly pounding its way to a conclusion. Maybe it’s just a feeling I have and nothing I can articulate in a review typed out on a keyboard, but this is music that frames up a whole history: of an artist, of listeners, of the artists who formed the history of the art form, of the culture and time that allowed this art to flourish.

All of this is in there, inside this brilliant recording by Matthew Shipp.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.