Free improvisation, as practiced by a band, requires musicians sufficiently egoless and blessed with ears such that satisfying patterns can emerge, uniting all musicians in a single, spontaneously discovered pursuit. Years of experience (and, usually, experience in playing together) are near-necessities.
For solo pianists, playing without a composed theme creates different but related challenges. The listening is internal. Where am I going? How do musical ideas connect? Am I merely leaning back on old licks or favorite patterns? How can I use my exceptionally orchestral solo instrument? How do the independent lines I create with two hands relate to each other?
Pianist Matthew Shipp has performed improvised solo piano often in a storied career. And, although Shipp is often heard as a knotty and “out” downtown player, The Piano Equation finds him celebrating his 60th birthday with logical grace. Performing 11 freely improvised pieces, he nonetheless has produced a recording of great beauty and logic, creating distinct performances that are simultaneously shocking and beautiful, equally classic and daring.
First, Shipp is playing here with a technical precision and brilliance that are unassailable. Before digging into questions of melody or harmonic invention, this recording demonstrates mastery of the piano itself. Shipp’s lines ripple with precision when he needed them to, and they slur like saxophone licks as required. They thunder and ring, strum and strut. He elicits overtones from the instrument to make the performances more orchestral, and he uses the piano pedals to create startling effects. His ability to shift from loud to soft or from rumbling distortion to chiming bell-like thrill is a pure thrill. “Tone Pocket” is a tour de force of sound and sound technique, with the wooden box of the piano echoing on command in accompaniment, with garrulous banged passages suddenly disappearing into wind chimes, and with the piano seeming to be strummed or plucked even though Shipp’s hands are only working the keys.
More importantly, however, Shipp has been able to create pieces out of thin air that seem utterly worthy of composition. They do not meander from one cool lick to another but instead adhere to a principle or central idea throughout, achieving unity while still sounding like adventures in the moment. “Radio Signals Equation”, for example, begins with a strong but short phrase in two parts, and Shipp keeps that phrase in his head and fingers for the full length of the performance. He repeats it in subtly different ways, returns to its initial tonality or key, or moves the shape of that phrase to other tonalities at will. He pulls it apart and distributes its elements to one hand or another. He uses the phrase to inspire a “solo” in the middle of the performance that works as a more expansive elaboration of the phrase’s interest and strength, including finding a rocking chordal motif three minutes in that launches the second portion of the performance. Still, Shipp plays the craggy but precise counterpoint that’s characteristic of his style eventually, finding both the chordal lick and the opening phrase both at home in a set of repeated phrases that sound as appealing as a Keith Jarrett solo despite being more tensile and less sentimental.
On a few of these tracks, Shipp evokes a hero in Thelonious Monk. “Swing Note from Deep Space” sounds quite a bit like a dancing blues by Monk, with that master’s angular melodic sense, joy in repetition, and blues harmonizing all on display. The puckish leaps in Shipp’s invented melody are set off by stride-like left-hand movement, with sudden flashes of bebop harmony coming through as jazz sunlight. “Vortex Factor” suggests “Trinkle, Tinkle” is its use of a roiling melody figure and—how about that?—it throws in a rumbling walking bass line at times that swings, before dropping down into a series of gut-rumbling low sonorities. “Void Equation” is a more abstract exercise in its beginning. Still, it uses several toggling figures that evoke “Mysterioso” by Monk and, as a result, suggests the kind of dark collision between Monk and Cecil Taylor that, in a shorter review than this, might not be such a bad definition of “Matthew Shipp”.
More often than referencing another pianist or any other work, the music on The Piano Equation seems to be pulled directly from the realm where mathematics and magic collide. The title track moves with the inevitability of Bach, with patterns rising and falling, harmonies being consonant, then darker, then resolving, everything revolving in what seems to be a pattern of beauty. How can this have come to Shipp’s fingers in the moment? But its improvised nature is also there in the DNA of the performance, as certain elements keep surprising you, turning your listening down a new alley only to drag you back to the thematic center. This doesn’t particularly sound like “jazz”, you might say, except that the only pianists who have played with this kind of improvised honesty come from that blues tradition. And despite the classical sheen here, the dissonances and crashing low notes suggest both James P. Johnson and Don Pullen.
Shipp layers mystery onto what could be a song from the 1940s with “Land of the Secrets”, creating a romantic theme that he plays almost straight. He still fits in trademark moments of dissonance—a storm brewing somewhere—but by playing his theme with a chiming beauty, he gets even more out of the darkness. Similarly, “Emission” is a gentle melodic idea stated in the upper register in an almost dainty manner. Shipp allows his touch to be coy, some notes seeming plucked rather than struck. He adds piquant moments and some contrasting bass notes. But the performance is concise: a theme, a bit of wandering, and then a stunning ending that is fully consonant, with luminous high chords strummed as he improvises a single-note line in the upper range.
For listeners who might be new to this kind of thing, Shipp even provides a brilliant two-minute miniature with a hummable blues lick at its start, middle, and finish. “Clown Pulse” is built on a simple idea, and it is toyed with for just enough time, like a sleight-of-hand coin trick at close range. Shipp swings it and sashays it and doesn’t dally.
What Matthew Shipp has done on The Piano Equation is a profound achievement. He has distilled his piano style into something sharp and distinct—very possibly the most concise and cogent statement of his pianistic sensibility. Shipp has demonstrated how free improvisation can produce results that get right to the essence without almost any wasted notes. And he has made a recording that seems comparable in the best ways to things like Keith Jarrett’s early Facing You or Chick Corea’s Piano Improvisations Volume 1. But the album is also more dazzling for being wholly improvised and for merging and engaging romantic piano sensibility with both more harmonically dissonant playing and the knotty patterns and concepts that are original to Shipp himself.
This is a recital to stand the test of time.