There was a time in the late ’90s when jazz pianist Matthew Shipp was entertaining the idea of retiring from music. I was not aware of this until I read Marc Jacobson’s liner notes to Signature, Shipp’s 2019 release for ESP-Disk. To anyone who is familiar with Matthew Shipp’s career, this is an odd notion. The staggering number of albums he has released as a solo artist, a bandleader, a sideman, or a collaborator over the last 20 years are exhibit A in the case for why Matthew Shipp’s premature retirement would have left a gaping hole in 21st century jazz. Nevertheless, he felt that “I’ve got too many sides out there already.” Fearing a bit of overexposure, Matthew Shipp was ready to concede that “silence is the best response”. For the confrontational piano legend, this is not a reach. After all, he did once deliver an entire lecture on the subject of nothingness.
Signature is another trio album with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, finding Shipp in the process of taking the jazz piano trio to such baffling heights that you’d swear the format no longer has a ceiling. Shipp’s faithful would expect no less. Anyone who thought that the jazz piano trio already achieved its apex before Bill Evans grew a beard may die of shock when listening to Signature. The melodies are challenging, the songs ridiculously elastic, and the performances from all three musicians are equal parts virtuosity and vinegar. They have moved several galaxies beyond the melody-solo-solo-solo-melody cycle. Song lengths range from 49 seconds to 16 minutes, and nothing is done by half measures. Signature is the sound of jazz continuing along the progressive arc it was given many decades ago.
Of the ten originals on Signature, three of them are designed to show off Bisio and Baker’s skills as well as Shipp’s ability to think outside the compositional box. “Deep to Deep” the aforementioned 49 second song, displaying Bisio’s ability to conjure overtones while bowing just one note. Baker gets his turn on “Snap” and “New Z”. The former is a two-minute snare solo that explores the varying sounds within just one piece of percussion equipment. The latter sounds like a rain stick accompanied by a few cymbals, though I suspect the arrangement is more sophisticated than that. These three selections represent only six minutes of an album that lasts for an hour and two minutes, but they warrant discussion all the same seeing as how they represent Matthew Shipp’s playfully open approach to music.
The remaining seven compositions aren’t designed to give your ears any reprieve either. But if you have followed Shipp’s career for any length of time, you’re already aware that listening to his music will take some effort on your part. The piano figures that give life to “Flying Saucer” sound like an engine that won’t quite turn over, or a program that won’t quite load, though the rhythm section shows no sign of resting easy. “The Way” is an effective display of deep harmonies crossing paths with a sharp piano attack and occasional atonality. “This Matrix”, the album’s longest track, seems to pack every trick that Shipp’s trio can summon into its length: muted piano strings, broken melodies, rambunctious noise, deafening, suspenseful silence, and tender explorations to bridge the gaps. It takes at least three minutes just to resolve all its loose ends.
Matthew Shipp remains just as ambitious as he is skilled. His recent career has been so prolific that it’s difficult to step back and take stock of it all. Does Signature fit into a bigger overall picture? Does it compliment his other albums, trio or otherwise? Can we make an educated guess at what comes next? Mind you, these questions don’t need to be answered to enjoy Matthew Shipp’s music, but pondering them helps one appreciate the man’s place in modern music.