Codebreaker is an excellent title for a Matthew Shipp album. When Shipp plays the piano, it sounds like he’s trying to solve a puzzle that only he, and maybe the ghost of Cecil Taylor, would understand. That is especially the case for his solo recordings, where he is free to go anywhere his mind takes him. Without his trio or any given accompanist, Shipp can and has bent jazz standards to his will through the power of improvisation.
When he improvises, his abilities as a pianist, though very high, feel like a secondary priority—letting the music go where it will is the name of the game. Like Keith Jarrett on Radiance, Shipp feels that any shape or meaning injected into Codebreaker was done by accident. “I was actually shocked at how introspective the album was when I listened back to it,” he says in the press release. Of course, introspection is not a one-size-fits-all mindset for musicians, and Shipp’s idea of introspection still involves a great deal of musical trickery.
The title track gets the album rolling in a decidedly non-flashy manner, favoring thick harmonies layed out in moderately paced chords. Things get thicker still as Shipp’s right hand takes more liberties while damping the chords with his foot. “Spiderweb”, another great title for a Shipp composition, applies some verve to where “Codebreaker” left off before it. Here, Shipp channels his inner-Bud Powell as his fingers dance around the keys in a way that’s just inside the borders of tonality.
The album proceeds to walk this fine line of reflection and musical complexity. Had Shipp not used the title Pastoral Composure before, it would have been a perfect fit for tracks like “Disc”, and “Letter from the Galaxy”, a pair of truly Bill Evans moments where the listener can almost sense Shipp getting lost between the notes. “Code Swing” and “Green Man” send the pendulum back the other way with highly energetic passages that Shipp probably didn’t feel like taming.
But what is it that makes the more musically involved numbers so introspective? Anyone apart from Shipp would have to make assumptions. When I hear “Stomp to the Galaxy”, I hear Matthew Shipp wandering close to the 12-tone scale while applying a great deal of care to his playing. The same could be said for “Raygun”, a harmonically twisted number that is nevertheless played delicately. Anyone can sit at a piano and pound away, but playing all of the notes packed inside of “Stomp to the Galaxy” and “Raygun” with a sense of dynamics is a whole other thing. “Mystic Motion” could be a potential example of the way certain harmonies broadcast feelings of mysticism or gloom, seeing as how it starts in a minor key but shakes itself free into something outside our normal modes. Again, things grow complicated, but you can tell that the artist has more than just music theory on his mind.
Codebreaker ends with “The Tunnel”, a brilliant piece of music that could describe the darkness inside or the light found at the end. If it’s a synthesis of the two, then that’s all the better. Codebreaker is the sound of Shipp gliding on autopilot, letting his subconscious do the talking. That it sounds so musical and reflective is a testament to his command of the instrument, improvisational skills, and ability to tap into what lies beneath.