June 29, 2002
Splasc(H) CDH 840.2
Pianist Matthew Shipp seems to have decided to become Anthony Braxton.
Its not that hes about to start playing reeds — although that might be just deserts for Braxton putting out CDs featuring his own piano playing — its just that like the older man, hes 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. Hes continued to move among these genres to this day.
Shipp, who made his initial reputation as one of the figureheads of New Yorks 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 didnt 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 theres this disc made up of two hymns, three jazz war-horses and four standard ballads.
Luckily he hasnt 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 its 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 Jacksons 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 couldnt 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 wont 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)