Various Artists: Blue Series Continuum: Sorcerer Sessions
Few modern pianists can rival Matthew Shipp's industry, let alone his skill. Just look at the last three years: bouncing between flowing lines of classical refinement and salvos of free jazz fury, he's cranked out seminal albums like the languid Pastoral Composure and the electric Nu Bop like he's on constant deadline. Shipp works like a free jazz Thomas Edison, mixing inspiration and perspiration in equal measure. Sorcerer Sessions, the latest installment of the Blue Series Continuum, finds the tinkering musician on the verge of another breakthrough.
As part of the Blue Series, this album has served as one of many workshops Shipp has utilized to experiment. Also, as a showcase for his compositional ability, this album allows him to blend classical, jazz, and electronic influences into a wholly different sound, something much more emotional and deep that a mere stylistic fusion. Jazz piano and clarinet snake around each other, only to later lead to soul stirring piano solos, break beats, electronic fuzz, and even the sounds of traffic. This is Shipp's dark requiem for downtown, blurring the line between smoky jazz lounges, classical concerts, and DJ booths while mastering them all.
Like many of his recent releases, Shipp's greatest asset here is the colorful talent pool he can draw from: bassist William Parker, eclectic clarinet player Evan Ziporyn, drummer Gerald Cleaver, violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, and the programmer Chris Flam. It's a mix drawn from the full spectrum of music, yet it suits Shipp's goals perfectly. Superb as always, Parker masters the full range of the bass, whether it involves plucking a walking bass line or bowing in tandem with Roumain. Even at his softest moment of playing, he still lends a heavy presence. Cleaver's light hands float across his set, creating colorful, organic bursts of noise similar to those that Shipp lets loose from his piano. Still, he's always able to come back and set a meticulous beat. More importantly, Roumain and Ziporyn excel at testing the range of their instruments, alternating between shrill bursts and smooth lower-register legato. Roumain's fiddling creates whirlwinds of noise, while much of Ziporyn's electronically distorted clarinet playing is ingenious.
With such a cast of heavy-hitters, it only follows that the most satisfying tracks from Sorcerer Session let these musicians stretch out. "Urban Shadows" finds Parker and Cleaver strutting together, locked deep into a hypnotic groove, as Flam's samples recreate the sounds that normally flood through a city window. Even car horns and revving motorcycles find their place within this dense song, expertly placed and a welcome addition to the song's pace, rather than a cheap distraction. Like much of the album, the combination of start-stop rhythm and disparate instrumental voices creates dimensions of space that Shipp skillfully manipulates. "Invisible Steps", one of the more jazz-oriented tracks on the album, finds Shipp and Ziporyn scatting back and forth, slowly raising and lowering their voices as they amble through beautifully deconstructed solos. It sharply contrasts the opener, "Pulsar", a classical ode that perfectly layers the piano, clarinet, and violin to create a stirring piece of music. After many synthesizer-tinged jazz outings, this track finds Shipp surprisingly at home in the classical setting. Only when the final breath of the clarinet echoes does one detect the oncoming rush of electronics.
"Keystroke" takes a seemingly esoteric concept -- utilizing the sound of a computer key as percussion -- and makes it work. Tapped out in a manner that recalls Cleaver's more aggressive work, the strokes are clumped together and work well with Shipp's tight piano playing. Flam also lends a hand, bending and warping the track to add direction. It's a track that would never fit in with the work on The Good and Evil Sessions, along with most of the album. It's a testament to the work of Thirsty Ear and Shipp that this recording series has produced two distinctly different albums that can be both progressive and enjoyable.
It's also a fine testament to Shipp. Even though some of the tracks on this album don't have the dynamic pulse of the others, he is still able to craft original sounds and not become derivative. From staccato pounding to silky smooth classical lines, Shipp can still find ways to refine and reinvent his original voice. Rather than blindly meld classical, jazz, and electronic elements, Shipp has expertly crafted a whole new genre of ethereal compositions. There's no telling what he'll come up with next.