Matthew Shipp: Harmony and Abyss

Matthew Shipp
Harmony and Abyss
Thirsty Ear

Jazz’s directional changes always lead to new cross-pollination of styles; forward-thinking shifts rub off on the surrounding genres of hip-hop and electronica in ways that grow them all. In the hallowed halls of the straight jazz schools, these forays into the breach are ill advised and considered poisoning the well. From the perspective of the other disciplines involved, jazz can be an unwelcome addition to a strictly constructed format or a natural progression — those in the techno community who frowned on acid jazz do not look forward to a repeat, while hip-hop heads are accustomed to this healthy marriage.

As curator of Thirsty Ear Records’ Blue Series, pianist Matthew Shipp is nudging those boundaries, while onlookers reconsider their early dismissal of such unholy alliances to their own dismay. Shipp quickly emerged from his notoriety as a next-generation free jazz innovator, utilizing the cluster tones and dissonance of Cecil Taylor, working constantly in saxophonist David Ware’s Quartet with William Parker and Susie Ibarra, and avidly seeking collaborations with peers and heavy hitter influences alike. His own multi-discipline collaborations have aligned him with the leftfield hip-hop outfit Anti-Pop Consortium, MC/producer El-P, and now, with Harmony and Abyss, breakbeat experimenter and producer FLAM (Chris Flam).

On this release, Shipp’s percussive playing fits into FLAM’s mixing snugly. In a track like “String Theory”, with its ebbs and flows of beats dotted with circular piano tinkling, FLAM adds some reverse tape loops to underline the sense of dizzying loss of equilibrium, without going over the edge into unconsciousness. “String Theory” is mesmerizing in its ability to remain afloat, above the murky depths of so many similar escapades into this unfamiliar realm. When these seasoned musicians exist in that unspoken zone of kinetic communication, sparks kick up from the floor. William Parker and Shipp speak this language through brushstrokes of their instruments, Parker enabling Shipp by subtle, distinct, deep-throbbing tones on his bass. “Amino Acid” percolates with this give-and-take electricity. Bongo beats with samples of claps of thunder work into a frenzy of foreshadowed danger and tense emotion. The sublime miniature “Invisible Light”, clocking in under two minutes, exudes a perfect ambience of warmth and security, as if a diminutive fireplace has burned down to its coals.

The blanks filled in here are easy to see on the page, but harder to scribble down to the untrained ear. Jazz idioms and reflections have been a constant in hip-hop for much of its existence. When Digable Planets used samples of Art Blakey and Rahsaan Roland Kirk alongside the Last Poets and James Brown snippets, it was not the first time the assimilation took place. De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest had made the jump, among many others, but the Planets’ exuding of jazz cool started another fire among hip-hoppers to a different, internally soulful place. Electronic music grabbed pieces of sax and bass lines from jazz along the way, too, to varied levels of reception.

The coda to this engaging, shifting chess game of call and response is “Abyss”, Parker’s bass drones, bowed into haunting echoes like some distant whale song. At the end of this chapter of the journey by Shipp and his accomplices, the depths of the dark holes of jazz moods — like the blues, or hot riffing on the rhythmic phrases and language of hip-hop and electronic beats by FLAM — have been plunged, with sufficient booty to show for it.