Steve Dalachinsky and Matthew Shipp

Logos and Language: A Post-Jazz Metaphorical Dialogue

with photographs by Lorna Lentini

Defining the process of sonic creation is difficult enough when analyzing notated works. But when it comes to improvised music, each performer’s individual background and beliefs weigh even more heavily.

Widely recorded American pianist Matthew Shipp, a self-described avant-garde jazz musician, attempts to articulate his improvisational philosophy in dialogue with New York poet Steve Dalachinsky in this book. The discussion takes up about half of this volume, while Shipp’s written musings on the subject plus a selection of Dalachinsky’s poems, written while listening to the pianist, complete the book.

An African-American Christian mystic, Shipp’s articulation of the musical creative process takes side trips into Christian symbolism involving metaphorical, metaphysical and Gnostic interpretations of the bible. Shoving aside the mysticism, an overall philosophy appears. In brief, the pianist – who cites as three of his biggest influences Coltrane, Bach and Scriabin – sees himself as a conduit through which the music flows. As he writes: “In a mature improviser, a language system is always being generated by the improviser’s subconscious mind; the performance is … a process that moves on by itself and really doesn’t need the performance to actualize itself.”

In conversation however, he admits that an instant composition is only successful if informed by the performer’s creative process. “Whether I create in real time or on a piece of paper there are hours of craft … to do. And they both equal a product or a process. So if one listens to an improvisation and gets enjoyment out of it even if it was created in real time, there were obviously hours of craft… that allow me to have the ability to do that in real time. And there might … be more structural integrity to that improvisation than if somebody else wrote something on a piece of paper …. But for me to really have power there needs to be some murkiness where improvisation and composition … disappear into one another, and I don’t know where that is all the time.”

Tied in with this concept is the necessity of the improviser’s constant search for originality, which must take place without copying or idolizing his or her influences. “If you love Charlie Parker, if you love [John] Coltrane you shouldn’t deify them, you should kill them (as they say in Zen …),” Shipp states. “The only thing important is life and the transition of life to new forms… I mean who gives a fuck about Duke Ellington? … I love Duke Ellington and …I love his music, but if I really love Duke Ellington ... I have to take myself for better or worse and try to be me.”

Excerpted and précised Shipp’s statements sound more dogmatic than in full context since he appears to possess that rare ability to articulate in complete sentences and paragraphs. Then again removing these thoughts on music from his musings on religion, literature and metaphysics does put them in sharper focus. Readers who have been impressed by Shipp’s recorded work, captured on his many recordings, on his own and with such leaders as tenor saxophonist David S. Ware and bassist William Parker, will likely gain further insight into his creative process with this volume. Furthermore Dalachinksy’s poetry is an added bonus, reflecting his appreciation of the pianist’s craft over almost 20 years, expressed through his personal word improvisations. Presenting an original series of images and metaphors that go beyond the sounded notes, the poems provide an individual reflection on the creative process, plus a parallel configuration of creativity.

— Ken Waxman

— In MusicWorks Issue #102