“They told me in school that I had to do something with my life. So I guess maybe this is doing something with your life. But I would be happy doing nothing. People say you would be bored with doing nothing, but I find nothing to be extremely pregnant with potential and satisfying in and of itself.”
These words were spoken by pianist Matthew Shipp on a summer night at New York club The Stone last year. He delivered a (non) lecture on nothingness to precede his solo album Zero. This hour-long lecture is captured on a bonus disc that is packaged with the early pressings of the album, and Shipp’s remarks about doing nothing sound strange at first. Here is a guy who has released two albums in early 2018 after switching labels and has collaborated with Ivo Perelman, Roscoe Mitchell, and Daniel Carter for three more 2018. Oh, and that album with Ivo Perelman will be a triple album. Yeah, who would be happy doing nothing now?
But Shipp’s concept of nothingness is much more abstract than just lying in bed all day. I recently came across a very old quote that flatly stated that the idea of earning a living was a modern fallacy. Everyone needs to “contribute to society”, so we develop more positions to fill in the workplace and more junk to justify the existence of these positions to the point where we have a pile of waste the size of Texas floating around in an ocean somewhere. Yet the virtues of doing nothing get slapped out of our hand, constantly being mistaken for laziness.
Matthew Shipp takes the idea of nothing, of absolute zero, very seriously. In his mind, names for musical genres are meaningless. Several times in his lecture, he states that the word “jazz” is meaningless to him. Music writers have been calling his music jazz for many years now because that’s pretty much a default setting. He frequently improvises on the piano, he performs with other musicians who are considered to be jazz musicians, he’s covered works by Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, and he’s frequently written about in publications such as Down Beat and All About Jazz. So what’s not jazzy about him? But that’s just a semantic question. If you want to go down that rabbit hole, then you need to start questioning words all around you. You know, “why is a ‘chair’ called a ‘chair’?”
If you have heard anything by Shipp before, you’ll know that the albums Zero and Sonic Fiction are unique in the realm of piano jazz (There’s that word again, but I need to use it out of convenience!). The title track of the former album is a gift basket of 12-tone bursts, quiet ruminations, and rhythms that go in and out of swing at will. Shipp’s disjointed sense of harmony hardly ever takes a backseat, constantly giving your ears something to stretch for. Even when the tempo is sped up from “Cosmic Sea” to “Zero Skip and a Jump”, the angular structure never rests. For all of Shipp’s forceful attack, there never are moments when he makes the piano absolutely roar. He is capable of it too, we’ve heard him do it before. Perhaps his fascination with nothingness and the concept of zero is translating to a certain dynamic restraint. Maybe he feels like he’s been there, done that, time to scoot on over to a new set of tricks.
Speaking of a new set of tricks, Sonic Fiction is a real treat. Where Zero and its accompanying lecture are intellectual, Shipp’s other ESP release with his quartet is more playful yet no less stimulating. All ten selections are composed by Shipp, but he lets reedman Mat Walerian completely take over on “The Station”, softly humming and noisily skronking for six whole minutes. Shipp reserves “Easy Flow” for himself, a song name that works on a sliding scale — you know, “easy” in comparison to Cecil Taylor. The provocatively named “The Problem of Jazz” is mainly an excuse for bassist Michael Bisio to furiously walk up and down the scale in eighth notes. Then there’s “The Note”, a 17-second track consisting of — yep, you got it! — a single piano note held out by the sustain pedal. If any of that sounds like Shipp and his band are just screwing with you, rest assured that there are numbers like “3 by 4” and the title track to remind you that Shipp is not only an expert improviser and composer, he’s also a pretty ace bandleader.
More than 25 years into his recording career, Matthew Shipp is still thrusting himself into a void in search of something impossible to name. Jazz is just a word, improvisation just a means. The resulting music is getting harder and harder for a person like me to convey in writing because there are so many genre labels you can drop before someone’s mind starts to glaze over. All I can really say is that Zero is stimulating, the lecture is bewildering, and Sonic Fiction is fun. And that’s only two hours and 40 minutes of what Shipp is unleashing upon us this year. No matter what time of year it is, no matter how many months separate you from whatever he’s up to, his music is almost ridiculously vital.