Whit Dickey, William Parker, and Matthew Shipp aren’t your typical jazz piano trio. If you’re familiar with only one of these names, then you already know that an album like Village Mothership isn’t a toe-tapping, easy-swinging good time. No, Village Mothership is a whirlwind of contemporary sounds. Dickey hits nearly every piece of his drum kit at any given moment, and Shipp plays the piano like a man trying to work through his own exorcism. That leaves Parker to somehow tie it all together with the double bass.
All six songs on Village Mothership were composed collectively, likely indicating that they were jammed into existence. It’s a challenging listen, but one that could pay off for those who need reminding that improvisation needn’t be just extended solos or chaotic noise. Sometimes improvisation can come across like well-calibrated, yet alarmingly precarious, clockwork — it could fall apart at any moment, and yet it doesn’t.
Dickey, Parker, and Shipp go back a long way. Shipp moved to New York City in the early 1980s with the goal of playing with Parker as his primary motivation. Shipp got his chance to meet and play with the legendary bassist/composer by the middle of the decade and was introduced to Dickey soon after. Along with Rob Brown on saxophone, the three musicians recorded an album under Shipp’s leadership in 1990 named Points. The Swedish label Silkheart didn’t release it for another two years, but Dickey served as producer for the sessions.
Fast forward to 2021, and Village Mothership is being billed as a Whit Dickey release with Shipp and Parker along for the ride. But when you get right down to it, no one musician overshadows the other two here. All three push, pull, and roll their weight around in equal measure, making Village Mothership as unique as it is difficult.
The song titles seem preoccupied with the absence of being, which reminds me of when Matthew Shipp delivered a lecture named “Zero: A Lecture on Nothingness”. There’s the opener “A Thing & Nothing”, the closer “Nothing & A Thing”, “Whirling in the Void”, “Nothingness”, and “Down Void Way”. That just leaves the title track, which Dickey thought of as a way to describe the artistic atmosphere of the East Village in the ’80s. Even the photograph adorning the album’s cover comes from that era, courtesy of Village Voice photographer Sylvia Plachy. If there’s a thread running through Village Mothership, it has more to do with the trio’s musical telepathy than anything to do with “nothingness” or a “void”. There’s too much going on for that to be the case.
The trio’s indicators are on full display from the first 60 seconds of “A Thing & Nothing”. Shipp is feeling his way around the music, never repeating himself. Dickey takes a rubato approach to the drums while Parker provides the occasional anchor. Once everyone has dipped their toes in the water, Parker takes out his bow to saw away at the low end. Shipp drops off, and Dickey almost falls silent. We aren’t even three minutes into the album at this point, and everything sounds like it’s coming out upside down and backward. And yet, Dickey, Parker, and Shipp can keep this up over almost an hour. Say what you want about modern jazz; that takes focus.
There are moments along the way that find the trio falling into a more conventional groove, as when “A Thing & Nothing” passes the halfway point or when “Nothingness” is winding down. These moments are in the minority. It’s easy to interpret the remaining sounds as an homage to Shipp’s idol and Parker’s old boss, Cecil Taylor. But Village Mothership runs deeper than that. It can be heard as a trio of musicians paying homage to themselves — how they met, the way they grew together, and the shared musical understanding that led to the music unfolding in the way that it did. It’s a grand achievement that doesn’t compromise one inch.