Matthew Shipp formally announced his early retirement from recording about a decade ago, at the age of 38, just over ten years after he first appeared on wax. During that period, the pianist had racked up around 15 recordings and established himself as an outspoken, idiosyncratic player with a dark, percussive attack. In attempting to describe his style, the press regularly resorted to knee-jerk references to free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, mostly because of that signature pounce. But while both are often atonal, assertive players, Shipp is far less prone to Taylor’s circuitous, hyper-intellectualized meandering, and much more focused on visceral movement around a primal groove.
In this sense, he’s the perfect partner for bassist William Parker, who’s been at his side for most of his career, and outer-bound tenor saxophonist David S. Ware, whose massive-sounding quartet was solidly anchored by those two players for its entire productive existence. In 1997, Shipp recorded The Multiplication Table, a crisp and unpredictable trio date with Parker and Susie Ibarra, the Ware Quartet’s drummer at the time. The hour-long set reflects the intuitive and open-ended communication these three players shared. It harkens back to his two classic, powerful early masterpieces, Circular Temple (1990) and Critical Mass (1995), but takes a notable detour by adding an odd twist on three jazz standards.
Shipp’s retirement ended shortly after it began, because he reached a deal with the indie Thirsty Ear label to serve as the A&R man, or “curator”, for its then-new Blue Series. (All cynicism aside, Shipp has always been savvy with his career.) Since 1999, he has made several recordings for the Blue Series as a leader and a sideman, including the recent Piano Vortex, an unconventional trio set not unlike this one. He has also recruited a variety of mostly New York-based musicians to lay down free jazz, electronic, nu-jazz, hip-hop, metal, spoken word, and other hybrids. The quality of the imprint’s output has been mixed, though not without some memorable high points from off the beaten path. Shipp’s own material for Thirsty Ear has mostly fallen below his earlier standards, generally sounding less dense, less intense (read: more user-friendly), and less connected with that raw, earthly primal groove. His live performances, in contrast, have often showcased his trademark lightning quickness and thunderous crashes.
That history makes this fresh reissue of The Multiplication Table all the most interesting and poignant in retrospect. At the core of the record are three jazz standards which are familiar enough to be recognized, at least in parts, yet deconstructed far beyond any normal improvisation upon the changes. Up first is “Autumn Leaves”, a six-decade-old piece by Joseph Kosma which has been played and sung to death (usually in a sickeningly sweet fashion) by jazz and cabaret musicians. The trio takes the piece apart quickly and thoroughly, infusing it with the characteristic dynamic edginess that pervades the rest of the album. Shipp casts “Autumn Leaves” in a restless, gothic mood, retaining its core sense of melancholy, but pounding out irregular chords and rapid-fire lines to punctuate phrases and introduce tension. A head-on collision of nostalgia and iconoclasm surfaces here, and later on through regular juxtapositions of swing and odd rhythms, riff-like patterns, and wild stabs in the air. From the start, Ibarra peppers the piece with rapid-fire snare and cymbal hits, shortly leading or trailing Shipp’s own changes in momentum as often as she matches them, blurring the boundaries a bit as time marches on. Parker’s muscular bounce helps pace and ground the flow; his detours into the upper range of the instrument provide a harmonic and melodic counterweight to Shipp’s lines; and when he picks up the bow, he rides eerily, birdlike, atop them.
A more subdued atmosphere emerges at the start of Ellington’s “The ‘C’ Jam Blues”, where Shipp plays more with syncopation and reduced, classical-sounding harmonies. As the 13-minute piece proceeds, Shipp’s stabbing, percussive attack pokes holes in the bluesy melody. By the time Parker and Ibarra enter at the six-minute mark, the pianist has ramped things up and everyone’s well into a feeding frenzy. Shipp’s forward, rhythmic riffing here and elsewhere allow him and Ibarra to trade their traditional roles — freeing her up to focus on energy, texture, and color, rather than timekeeping per se.
The five originals on the record are similarly raw and engaging. Shipp’s partners match and counter his shifty, insistent tension, making the intermittent (and usually brief) collective moments of release all the more dramatic. That high drama, stoked by tension and channeled through unpredictable shifts in course, is ultimately what makes the music most compelling. It’s large and life-like, not lost in some twist of the wrist, and it draws you in — because it’s worth sticking around to see where the story goes.