BY ZIVIT SHLANK JAZZ AMBASSADOR Pianist. Composer. Arranger. It’s always risky to define an artist by a certain device, technique, or way of going about things. Each word is finite; they only begin to scratch the surface. Matthew Shipp is an improviser, pure and simple. By the same token, there are countless hours of thought behind every gesture. Admittedly, he questions his own understanding of what it all means. Like many musicians of this ilk, Shipp and his music are akin to the elements. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, both take on different forms and move in new directions. Bottom line? Listen and judge for yourself. You can do exactly just that thanks to Ars Nova Workshop. Come celebrate Shipp, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickley’s latest effort, Elastic Aspects, tonight at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. Phawker recently got on the horn with Matthew to pick his brain…
PHAWKER: I feel like most parents force their kids to take piano lessons at some point…was that the case with you?
MATTHEW SHIPP: Not at all, it was completely my choice. I really loved the organist at the church we went to. I said to her I want to play the organ, but she said you should play piano first. So I started taking lessons with her.
PHAWKER: Much like with learning anything, there’s always a beaten path you first follow before drifting off and exploring on your own. Was there a particular song, artist, or moment that set you on your path to discovery?
MATTHEW SHIPP: I think it was more of a holistic thing. There were a bunch of artists that were inspiring in that way, following their own muse. I had some people that were mentors that made it clear to me that’s what you should aspire to do, but it takes a long time to trust yourself enough to go in your own direction. You can tell anyone in any aspect of life to develop your own language, march to the beat of your own drummer. That creates an existential black hole, ya know? What does that even mean? How do you tell a student to do your own thing? As a young person, you encounter an established language, but how as a young person are you supposed to rebel against that? You think you’re discovering something on your own, but then you find out that someone else has already done that and you strike out. There’s a long period of learning with an open mind and soaking everything in. In copying other people, what you get wrong is crucial to beginning to find your own way. I was lucky enough to be around older people that were very gracious in letting me know when I was full of it or when I was on to something. It’s a holistic thing, it’s an environmental thing and it’s all a process. I don’t think you just one day decide to step out on your own; you have to have an inherently rebellious nature. If all the pieces are in place for it to happen, it will naturally happen at a certain point. Looking back, I think a lot of stuff was going on, a metamorphosis took place, but to say when or how, I can’t say it’s that black or white.
PHAWKER: That’s led you on quite the journey playing with some of free jazz’s most revered players including, among others, William Parker and David S. Ware. Supposedly you retired in 1999. What happened?
MATTHEW SHIPP: [laughs] Yeah, I officially retired in 1999 but that lasted only 4 months. Not retired from performing, I can’t afford that, just from recording. Thirsty Ear brought me out of retirement.
PHAWKER: It’s amazing how many albums you’ve recorded for them in a 12-year span of time. These recordings present interesting story arcs that have a beginning, middle, dénouement and ending that can go in any direction. As someone who prides himself on being an improviser, what is the recording process like for you?
MATTHEW SHIPP: Recording is exhausting; it’s a whole other mindset. The recordings are sequenced and sculpted. Even though my defined role in the world is as an improviser, there’s a lot of thought into the process. It’s not just turn the tape on and see what comes out, it’s not that at all. There’s an extreme methodology put forth from organizing the recording, to actually recording it and then promoting them. Yes I am trying to tell a story. One great thing about studio CDs is that you can program a narrative of sorts, which is something that’s hard to do with instrumental music because there are no words. You can, however, program various moods and emotions to create a storyline of sorts. You talked about how it could end in any direction, and there’s definitely a dream-like logic I try to create. Our subconscious minds create stories and mutate in ways that don’t have the exact logic as our waking lives do, but they have their own internal logic. Do dreams end when you wake up? Theoretically, it goes on infinitely under the surface. I’m trying to uncover an internal logic that has its own ways of developing. It’s extremely exhausting. I’m a very tired person. [laughs]
PHAWKER: Thirsty Ear has had quite the history first being a marketing company, and then got more involved with music making. It’s been indie, punk, rock and now it’s focus is free jazz. Did that shift really begin when you got on board?
MATTHEW SHIPP: Well first as a prelude, Thirsty Ear was, along with Matador, Sub Pop and others, one of the first indie rock labels in the early 90s when the alternative and indie rock scenes started to blossom. Alternative music had a very wide definition back then. A lot of people in the punk world were free jazz fans, and back then, the idea was kinda floating around of a connection with post-punk and free jazz. Not directly, but there were some things about free jazz that people in the underground rock world liked. Some labels started picking up jazz acts and I was one of them. I was recording for Henry Rollins, who was running 2.13.61
Records back then, and he got a promotion and distribution deal with Thirsty Ear, so that’s how I met them. When Henry stopped his label, I started recording with Thirsty Ear. That was a slow metamorphosis getting out of the indie rock scene per say and into a new music jazz label.
PHAWKER: Your music tends to be categorized as jazz, but that’s a huge umbrella musical term with both very traditional and non-traditional connotations. How do you feel about that?
MATTHEW SHIPP: Genres labels are surface phenomenon that just talks about some of the practices of how you play. At the end of the day, it’s just all music. I don’t care about the clothes you wear, I care about the soul underneath the clothes. Articulating music whether it easily falls into a genre that people consider jazz or classical or whether it’s some form of modern music, the actual soul of the music is just pure vibrations.
PHAWKER: So would you say the goal is to present music that is sincere?
MATTHEW SHIPP: I think sincere is the optimum word, here. There’s no reason to be different just to be different, that doesn’t work. If there’s a sincere language being made, that’s a whole other ball game. It just so happens to fall away from the mainstream.