“I Don’t Want a Word to Define Me, and ‘Jazz’ Is a Word”: Matthew Shipp at 60

The avant-garde luminary reflects on standout recordings from his TIDAL catalog. 

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Matthew Shipp flanked by trio-mates Newman Taylor Baker (left) and Michael Bisio. Credit: Anna Yatskevich.

If ever there was a word to describe the heady aesthetic and monumental catalog of the pianist Matthew Shipp, you needn’t look further than the title of his trio’s most recent album: “unidentifiable.”

For the last three decades and change, over dozens of recordings, this avant-garde pillar and Downtown New York City lifer has ripped up, deconstructed and reinvented the jazz blueprint with forward-looking abandon. Whether leading his deep-thinking yet freewheeling trio of bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, delving into his shapeshifting solo piano work or partaking in collaborative and sideman gigs, Shipp creates inside his own indelible genre.

“First of all, I don’t really know what jazz is as a word,” Shipp reflects. “I guess I’m a jazz musician, or what people call jazz is probably what I feel I’m closest to in some ways. But saying that, I don’t know what jazz is and I don’t know what I am. So I’m always kind of questioning things and asking questions.  

“I don’t want a word to define me, and jazz is a word,” he continues. “When you sit down at an instrument, you’re playing vibrations, you’re playing energy. So who’s to say that a vibration or energy is called jazz or anything?”

As Shipp celebrates his 60th birthday on December 7, he remains as prolific and productive as ever. Despite the pandemic, 2020 has been a particularly fruitful year for the pianist, highlighted by the ESP-Disk’ release The Unidentifiable and a solo piano set, The Piano Equation. And that’s naming just a couple of projects: He already has another new solo piano joint (called Code Breaker) slated for release sometime in 2021.

To mark his milestone birthday, Shipp looked back with TIDAL on 2020 in addition to notable releases in his hefty canon — from solo outings to jazztronica experiments to his work in the David S. Ware Quartet, among the most compelling units in avant-jazz history.  

Matthew Shipp Trio
The Unidentifiable (2020)

It’s the narrative of the album, the way the slightly more straight-ahead tunes — if you want to call them that — work with the freeform tunes, and just the whole flow of that and making it make sense. It’s not like “a little of this and a little of that,” but really making all those [pieces] seem like they come from one vision. I felt that we did achieve that here. That was the main thing.

If you look at some of my influences — say, maybe a little McCoy [Tyner] and the Coltrane influences mixed with Ellington, bebop, Bud Powell — I felt we reached a really good coming together of all that. I never want my album to sound like a hodgepodge of influences. It’s an attempt for a unified voice, both of myself and the trio. I felt that we covered a big [swath] of the jazz continuum while maintaining the modern, space-age type of thing, all within one voice.

There’s been an unbelievable arc of growth. I don’t know how the listener perceives that, but for me from where I sit, from The Conduct of Jazz to Piano Song to Signature to The Unidentifiable, it’s been a real arc in a real way. It’s been a development of the trio sound and of the concept.

I’m very pleased with how The Unidentifiable came out. I go in with an abstract idea; I don’t exactly know how it’s going to come out. I feel like I got what I was looking for.

Matthew Shipp Trio
The Conduct of Jazz (2015)

I felt the trio with [drummer] Whit [Dickey] reached its apotheosis on Root of Things. I don’t know where there was to go with the trio after that album. I actually had been following Newman [Taylor Baker] around since I was 14 or 15 because I’m from Wilmington, Delaware, and he lived there for a while. I used to go to gigs that he was on, but I never actually went up and introduced myself. It’s just so out that years later he’d wind up in my trio! [laughs]

It was just a very fresh experience, and I felt comfortable because of [his ability] to bridge the gap in whatever the concept was. The Conduct of Jazz was basically a fresh start, and I feel it comes across on the album. I felt we clicked right away. I remember the first rehearsal we had. Bisio turned to Newman and said, “You know, every time I play something and I think, ‘What would a drummer play?,’ you actually play what I’m thinking.” I just remember that [laughs]. 

Newman has a very orchestral sense. He’s also not really what I would call a free-jazz drummer. He’s played with everybody. He’s played with McCoy Tyner, Ahmad Jamal, Billy Harper. I had a drummer with a really intense jazz pedigree [Dickey], and it just changed the focus of the trio [from being] rooted in the “theory of free jazz” to a trio rooted in the concept of the music and being able to delve into the jazz roots of it all. Not that I’m ever trying to be a straight-ahead jazz pianist, even if there are glimpses of that that come through sometimes.

David S. Ware Quartet
Wisdom of Uncertainty (1997)

Wisdom of Uncertainty was definitely the start of a certain era because of Steven [Joerg] starting AUM Fidelity, his own label. Before I even met David I went to a couple of concerts he did with his trio with Marc Edwards and William Parker, and they recorded for Silkheart Records. David put the word out that he wanted a pianist. William and Reggie Workman told him about me. So I went to a concert he did and introduced myself and he said, “Oh, yeah, they told me about you. I’d like to hear you.” We got together and played duo and it just clicked from the first time.

Ever since I was a teenager I used to really like Pharoah Sanders, and I wanted to be like Joe Bonner, the pianist with Pharoah Sanders; I wanted to play in a band of a tenor player who had a big sound. I always envisioned a physically big, huge tenor player — a Black tenor player with a big sound. I envisioned myself being in a quartet that didn’t sound like the Coltrane Quartet but had their spirituality, and that was the impetus for the band.

So along comes David and he fit all those categories: a big, Black tenor player with a big sound, even though he had his own language. Everything was obviously influenced by the idea of the Coltrane Quartet on some level, but he went for a completely different thing. To be a member of this quartet was something that I had abstractly thought about since I was a teenager, [and it was] taking form right in front of my eyes.

I heard two cuts from Wisdom of Uncertainty about a year ago and it retained a real freshness to me. I think “Utopic” was the cut [I listened to], and I was like, “Wow.” It’s a very strong Ware album.

Darius Jones & Matthew Shipp
Cosmic Lieder (2011)

Basically, the way that happened [meeting Darius] was I’d heard about him but never really heard him. So he played in the Vision Festival; I don’t think it was his gig, but I remember I was hanging out with Hamid Drake and we sat listening. I was really blown away. Not that he plays this way, but that night he was doing some Cannonball Adderley types of things but really abstract in kind of an avant-garde setting. I went backstage after and introduced myself. He started telling me that he’d been listening to my albums since he was in high school or college. He started talking about New Orbit, the album I did with Wadada Leo Smith, and how that album had a big influence on him. We just started talking and we said, “Yeah, we should do something.”

He’s from a different generation than me so he approaches things a little differently than I do. It’s different if I’m playing with a peer of mine, [someone] my age like Rob Brown or Ivo Perelman. I let him … I’m not gonna say determine the flow, [but more] set the tone of that kind of operatic, short movements thing that we do. I can’t say exactly why we connect, but within the language that we decided to explore and my willingness to go in a little different way than I usually do, we’re both there. If two people are really both in the headspace, it’s gonna tend to work [laughs].

Matthew Shipp
The Piano Equation (2020)

My first jazz album that I ever got myself when I was 12 was Phineas Newborn Jr., Solo Piano. That album made a big impact on me, as did a lot of other solo albums: the ones that are in Cecil Taylor’s classic period, Indent, Air Above Mountains and especially Silent Tongues; Bud Powell doesn’t have [an entirely] solo album, but he has solo cuts on some albums, like “Parisian Thoroughfare” and “Hallucinations.” Of course classical music, too, because I’m really into classical music.

There’s a long tradition of solo piano, and the instrument lends itself to solo playing, so you’re relating to the energy field of what a piano is, as opposed to relating to other personalities. It’s basically the instrument, your personality and nothing else, and that’s a whole different construct in relating to other people. Playing solo piano is a prayer to the instrument in and of itself, the pure sound of the piano.

I feel the older I get, the more clarity I get with my own concept; I can really get to my own concept directly, without worrying about other people’s input, and a group’s sound exists to have other people’s input. The more clarity I get about my own pianistic approach, it gets easier to get to that directly right away in solo piano, whereas at one time solo piano might have been the hardest to do. But I’ve had so much experience doing it. I’ve had so many solo piano gigs and albums over the years that it’s kind of the format, in some ways, that I feel most comfortable with right now.

I do feel I’ve gotten a lot deeper into my own language and can control the flow of it and can give myself over to it a little easier. It’s always in flux, it’s always growing, it’s always mutating and changing.

Matthew Shipp
Nu Bop (2002)

Nu Bop was the first album in Thirsty Ear’s “The Blue Series” and my first album as leader in the “jazztronica” thing. Usually when I put out an album, I know the audience for it. I have a sense of who will relate to this album and who will not relate to it. But when I put out that album, I actually had no idea what was gonna come back at us [laughs]! It was such a new thing that I had no idea if I’d be considered a sellout, if people would dig it or what. I was pleasantly surprised that we had a really decent reaction. Even some people who didn’t really dig it dug the intent or the integrity of it; it just might not have been their thing.

But Nu Bop did its damage and even people like David Bowie talked about that album. It turned his head around. He talked about that cut “Rocket Shipp” in a special on jazz with Courtney Pine for the BBC. They asked him about what he was listening to and he talked about that, and a couple of people who know him said he used to talk about me a lot.

I’ve always been a fan of dance music of different sorts, and I’m a fan of early hip-hop. So it’s [a matter of] me liking a certain thing, then on top of that I started meeting people. I met DJ Spooky at a gallery opening where he was DJing here in the Lower East Side. He knew my music and asked if I wanted to collaborate someday. I was shocked that I was meeting these DJs in New York and they knew my work and they were asking me about collaborating. I was thinking, “That’s strange.” Then I started thinking, “Why not?!”

I used to hang out at [the now-defunct NYC record shop] Other Music, and Beans from Antipop Consortium was working there and I started talking to him. The whole flavor of it was kind of Lower East Side and also U.K. I remember one night at the Knitting Factory, I ended up jamming with A Guy Called Gerald, who was performing. Spring Heel Jack were involved with the European trip-hop scene, then they started recording for Thirsty Ear. They knew my work and wanted to do a collaboration. … My wife was a big trip-hop fan [as well]. She was really into Björk and Massive Attack and was always saying, “You should do some project like that.” I think it was the intersection of all those things, and then it just happened on its own.

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