A trio of viola, piano, and drums plays a recital of total improvisation, but the adventure is beautiful, focused, cohesive. Recommended to any listener with a taste for the (slightly) different.
Freely improvised jazz is not a market leader, but I think it’s time you checked it out. Okay, not if you limit you listening to today’s pop tunes or only classic rock, only smooth jazz.
But if you have a taste for music that challenges your ears even a little bit, then you should hear Vessel in Orbit. If you get absorbed by edgier rock, then this trio might give you a thrill. If you are a classical music fan whose taste runs into the 20th century and some daring harmonies, then you will be fascinated by group with piano, viola, and drums that improvises with a sense of structure that is astonishing. If you are jazz fan but not much into “the weird stuff”, then I’d suggest that the weird is actually wonderful and not that weird. At least not this stuff, this incredible improvised stuff being made by drummer Whit Dickey, violist Mat Maneri, and pianist Matthew Shipp.
The background. Dickey is the oldest in the band at 62, and he is associated mainly with the kind of intense freedom within structure that this album refines. He played in the acclaimed quartet of saxophonist David S. Ware along with Shipp. Shipp is the most widely recorded pianist of what we used to call “the downtown scene”, and his work has spanned electronica, free jazz, and all manner of expressive in-between-ness. As a student at the New England Conservatory, he studied with saxophonist Joe Maneri, who is the father of Mat Maneri. Maneri the string player has a classical background as well as a heritage as a free improvisor.
The result of these various close connections and varying backgrounds is a trio record that is, more than anything, cohesive. Each composition is credited to all three musicians, which usually indicates that the performances were wholly improvised: no chart, no predetermined melody, harmony, rhythm or form. If that’s the case, then there’s simply some magic in how these musicians listen to each other in the moment. “Spaceship 9”, which opens the recording, begins with a gong-like set of left-hand octaves from Shipp, choreographed perfectly with the trio, leading to a suddenly lyrical set of chiming steps where viola and piano are in sync. It sounds composed. It is, in fact, rich in intuitive structure.
“Galaxy 9” is so lyrical in its early going that it seems like a folk song, with traces of the kind of piano-jazz-lyricism that Keith Jarrett is known for. While parts of Vessel in Orbit can get frantic and harsh, this track is harmonically inviting. Even as Dickey turns up the heat on the groove, the viola and piano keep it focused amidst the freedom. At times, Maneri sounds like a klezmer string player, circling around and around with excitement but staying in the mode.
Maneri, as the one player here who must always play something like a linear melody, never seems to be working at cross-purposes with Shipp and the tonal centers he finds on the piano. Maneri’s ear is superb, and he is able to follow Shipp wherever his imagination takes him. But just as often, it’s Maneri who leads. Five minutes into “Space Walk” he gets a brief solo statement (where, by the way, he sounds for all the world like two violists at once), and his call-and-response-by-myself ideas set up a new groove from Dickey.
Shipp is one of my favorite pianists because there is always something beautiful and grooving going on, even when the music is not conventionally pretty. “Dark Matter" starts with solo piano that presents a powerful bass groove and engaging right hand melodies. The band joins and builds to a collective climax before the trio simmers down into a series of sharp quarter notes against which Dickey plays a counter-rhythm in three. Eventually, the counterpoint of piano and viola grows so beautifully intricate that it seems like a fine pattern of cloth.
Dickey set the pace at times too, as well a drummer should. “Space Strut” starts with his busy, complex work on the cymbals, and it moves into a zone that allows Shipp to “walk” a left-handed bass line. Manner manages to find traces of Thelonious Monk in his melodies, and the band finds several different ways of swinging.
To my ears, this truly “free” date is the best possible argument for free collective improvisation. If you’re not used to this stuff, I understand the reluctance to try something so different. Like a new cuisine, something beyond your usual diet, it might be strange at first. But this is place to give it a go -- with top players who know each other very well and who clearly want to capture your ear.
Rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop both suggest transgression and edge at their best. So does jazz. Give it it’s due. Give it a listen. You think your “cool” music is different and daring but still great? Jazz has it all for you and more. Give Dickey, Maneri, and Shipp a listen. They’re making rebellion beautiful again.