Splasc(H) CDH 840.2

Pianist Matthew Shipp seems to have decided to become Anthony Braxton.

It’s not that he’s about to start playing reeds — although that might be just deserts for Braxton putting out CDs featuring his own piano playing — it’s just that like the older man, he’s now involving himself in a panoply of — for him — unusual music.

Braxton has long had a reputation as a musical chameleon. No sooner did he establish an identity as a committed saxophone explorer and composer, then he began turning out albums of jazz standards. Then when fans became used to that, he released sessions filled with chamber, orchestral and operatic works that were linked more to modern so-called serious music than jazz. He’s continued to move among these genres to this day.

Shipp, who made his initial reputation as one of the figureheads of New York’s full-tilt contemporary avant garde along with bassist William Parker and tenor saxophonist David S. Ware, was initially unfairly compared to Cecil Taylor. The fact that his approach was smoother and significantly less percussive didn’t seem to dawn on those who based their impressions on superficial appearances.

He countered this — and began exhibiting his Braxton-like versatility — with a series of intimate string album featuring folks like Parker, violist Mat Manner and guitarist Joe Morris. Then, last year he began recording CDs in more of a groove style, featuring synthesizers and programming and even playing synthesizer himself. Now there’s this disc made up of two hymns, three jazz war-horses and four standard ballads.

Luckily he hasn’t unexpectedly become Brad Mehldau or Keith Jarrett. If anything, his arpeggio rich readings, heavy on multi-note virtuosity, remind you of the treatments of similar standards by acknowledged keyboard variation masters like Art Tatum or Phineas Newborn Jr. Contrast these performances with how Taylor played standards in the early 1960s and CT begins to resemble Count Basie with his minimalist approach.

Nearly every composition here is re-harmonized, with most surviving changes in tempos, emphasis and attack. Fervently two-handed, with many, many bass notes on display, repetition is also used when it’s most needed. Lounge-style ballads such as “Angel Eyes” and “There Will Never Be Another You” benefit most from slow deconstruction, with themes gradually revealing themselves after chiseling their way out of a thicket of variations. Piano bar frequenters will likely be frightened.

Heads of jazz classics like Milt Jackson’s “Bags’ Groove” and Sonny Rollins’ “East Broadway Run Down (sic)” appear earlier when he tackles these tunes. But then again Shipp has stronger material — and fewer associations — with which to work. The only performances which are a bit problematic for jazzers are the rather straightforward renditions of “We Free Kings” and “Almighty (sic) Fortress Is Our God”. Shipp played church music as a child and one supposes that he felt that while he could change the hymns slightly, he couldn’t take as many liberties with the religious material as with the other songs.

The pianist has surely proved his versatility and originality with this set. It probably won’t win over diehard Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson followers, but open-minded contemporary piano fans should welcomed it.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1.We Free Kings 2. There Will Never Be Another You 3. Almighty (sic) Fortress Is Our God 4. Con Alma 5. Angel Eyes 6. On Green Dolphin Street 7. Bags’ Groove 8. Yesterdays 9. East Broadway Run Down

Personnel: Matthew Shipp (piano)