Matthew Shipp: Nu Bop

Matthew Shipp
Nu Bop
Thirsty Ear

Matthew Shipp’s latest contribution to his label’s Blue Series, which he curates with a golden touch, is a merging of electronics and jazz that is a futurist’s jazz fantasy made flesh and metal. Shipp is joined by frequent collaborators William Parker and Guillermo Brown on bass and drums, respectively, and the saxophone and flute of Daniel Carter. But all are joined by, and up against, Chris Flam’s metallic beat programming, and it makes for some of the most palpable experimentation on a jazz record in recent years.

Shipp’s playing moves like ripples, starting from a single idea, and branching out in concentric shapes. It’s a way of traveling, but not the usual one in an era where the effects of Bud Powell’s forward-driving single note virtuosity still hold sway. Shipp’s piano produces modal blocks — not streams — of color, rhythmically placed in ripple patterns. His strong pulse on the more upbeat pieces serves as a bedrock layer to the syncopated skittering of the drums and machines, putting piano and bass into an anchoring position, and putting the drums and programming on top. It’s like watching underwater happenings through a choppy surface.

The musicians’ process: Shipp, Brown, Parker, and Carter improvise against the constant of Flam’s programming, which was put down first. The programming acts as a foil for the musicians, who make it their business to accommodate and surpass the restrictions of the machine. Then there’s subtle post-production work by Flam and Shipp: fading instruments in and out, some mild effects on instruments, and under and over-stated loops. But Nu Bop smartly leaves the burden of innovation to the musicians as they’re in-flight. Jazz musicians are used to reacting on the fly, and the programming acts as a stimulating setting.

The gauntlet is thrown down on the first track, “Space Shipp”. A seething electronic splattering of beats sets up an exotic modal theme in the piano, and the band pushes and pulls at the unmoving machine for all of the piece’s pop-song length of three minutes, 20 seconds.

“Nu-Bop” begins with an effects-treated soprano saxophone call, summoning the bass into a deep groove of plucked-out asymmetrical proportions. Brown’s powerhouse drums enter dramatically. This is a jazz-musician’s funk, repetitive enough to support the groove, but shifting and changing like breathing. Carter takes a Shorter-like soprano solo over the alien territories, with a subtle delay-effect on his lines. The drum break shows perfect synchronization with the machine. Shipp enters at 3:50 in the low register with ominous sci-fi tidings: falling chords and a dark rumble — a weighty echo of the bass’ asymmetrical proposition. There’s a return to bass and drums, the piano fades back in, and the piece ends with solo piano, Shipp sounding like no one so much as himself, and then a subtle loop of the last few chords. The instruments surge in and out of the mix like independent tides.

“ZX-1” is a solo piano interlude; a moment of reflection. Independent left and right hand exposition occasionally moves together into harmony. Shipp plays with a beautiful tone, and a great command of dynamics, and builds a satisfying and far-flung composition from a two-note motif at the center.

“D’s Choice” features some shimmering programming: delicate high-pitched beats that range from the purely electronic glitch to sounds like sticks on cymbal stands. It settles in at a comfortable clip, and Shipp examines a lovely Asian-sounding melody, perfectly set in the programming context, from every possible angle. Brown’s drumming is particularly inventive, coloring the piece with orchestral strokes.

“X-Ray” continues the Far Eastern mood of “D’s Choice” with a flute/bass duet, again of pop-song dimensions. Carter’s flute tone is deep and sonorous, and is well matched sonically to Parker’s rich accompaniment.

“Rocket Shipp” begins with a bass riff, and a complex soundscape fading in around it: a futuristic sound that, by way of comparison, moves most closely to the thick atmosphere of Miles Davis’ On the Corner. The drums engage fully in a tug-of-war with the beat programming, which now includes some vaguely vocal-like sounds, obscuring each other. The music from 5:17-5:45 is a direct repeat of a section of “Space Shipp” (starting around the 1:00 mark) and at 5:45, the music is looped back to 5:17. With the direct lift of previously-presented material, it suddenly becomes obvious that the spectre of Teo Macero is hanging over this recording, and Nu-Bop begins to seems like a continuation of Macero’s groundbreaking work with Miles’ early electric period.

“Select Mode 1” is a short and driving dance that’s based on a series of looped, chopped, cut and paste piano riffs set to a cheery tambourine and drum rhythm that, by the end of the piece, sounds sinister for the juxtaposition.

“Nu Abstract” is an atmospheric piece featuring Shipp’s harpsichord-like piano string plucking and some fearsome artificial sound environments made by synthesizer and bowed bass. It, too, is confined to pop song proportions, and its tight framing adds not only to its elegance, but makes it intelligible in a way that a longer exercise would not be.

The closing “Select Mode 2” is an abstracted take on the famous groove-riff of Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder”, given a thoroughly contemporary reading: disjointedness, the urban jumble of sound, frequent alarms, repetition, urgency and the conspicuous absence of melody mark this as a modern creation. What saves it from being too harsh is the warmth of the touch in the musicians’ hands — even if the performances have been chopped to bits, there’s no mistaking that each note is flush with personality.

Even writing as early as March, it’s hard to imagine how this will not be considered one of the best releases of 2002, and a future classic. Nu Bop is a stimulating trip on the edge where man meets machine.

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