Matthew Shipp

April 28, 2003

Thirsty Ear THI57127.2

Matthew Shipp
Antipop Consortium Vs. Matthew Shipp
Thirsty Ear THI57120.2

With Songs, CD of standards came out about a year ago, it seemed that Matthew Shipp had decided to become Anthony Braxton and record his own interpretation of many traditional jazz compositions and standards. Those presumptions have certainly gone out the window on evidence of these two CDs. One links Shipp and company with the synths and programming of FLAM; the other finds him collaborating with hip-hoppers Antipop Consortium. Judging by his simple, rhythmic playing on these sessions, however, the pianist may now be aiming to be the next Ramsey Lewis.

Although Shipp says that Equilibrium’s goal is to explore beat elements with modern jazz, yet, except for a couple of anomalies, the modern jazz referenced on these nine numbers seems to be the overproduced jazz-rock of CTI and Philly International. Of course, co-producers Shipp and FLAM, who also is in charge of synthesizers and programming on the disc, may have set a certain standard by procuring these overprocessed sounds from only three other musicians beside themselves. They are longtime Shipp associate bassist William Parker, Detroit drummer Gerald Cleaver and Philadelphia vibaharpist Khan Jamal.

Jamal, who has recorded with exploratory musicians like saxophonists Byard Lancaster and Charles Tyler, suffers the most from this wall-of-sound since he records so infrequently. His full-bodied, bar-ringing style extends the Milt Jackson-Bobby Hutcherson tradition. But here and, unfortunately even more so on ANTIPOP CONSORTIUM, his multi-shaded tone is squeezed into creating the sort of underdeveloped vamps Dave Samuels used with fuzak band Spyro Gyra.

For instance, “Cohesion”, the longest track here at a shade over 6½ minutes, is a groove tune in the lineage of “Pick Up the Pieces”. Built on a steady 4/4 pulse it only escapes from its foot tapping origins when Cleaver, who has played with altoist Tim Berne and bassist Mark Helias indulges himself in a vague Afro-Cuban beat, and Parker buzzes his bass strings in sympathy. The track fades as the bass solo begins, though. Khan is reduced to hitting his vibes in concert with a scratching, repetitive synth program. Meanwhile, after Shipp plays a descending melody line, the pianist concentrates on the same pattern, sounding like Lewis playing on his version of “Maiden Voyage”. There isn’t much need for release here, since there isn’t much tension in the performance. Furthermore, Shipp’s arpeggio-rich romantic treatment of “World of Blue Glass” reduces the bassist and drummer to mere accompaniment, with the vibist not even on the track.

Everyone fares a bit better on “The Key”. Parker’s powerful, dark lines sound out the theme; Cleaver breaks up the metronomic beat and Jamal varies the groove enough to shape out a ringing Jackson-shaded lead line. Later, his exciting, multi-mallet solo is extended with proper programming to resonate longer and louder, an example of how dial twiddling should work.

FLAM is likely also responsible for desert landscape imagery that morphs out of unidentified tones and textures from the piano on “Nu Matrix”. With keyboard strings seemingly plucked like a guitar’s and otherworldly cadenzas bubbling up from an oasis of sound, there’s even room for a few slices of vibes motion. Still the uneasy feeling exists that this and some other tunes were pieced together in the studio rather than played live. Tracks that are faded before they end add to the suspicion.

If Equilibrium sound like what would happen if a 21st Century Modern Jazz Quartet was programmed with James Brown samples, then Antipop Consortium Vs. Matthew Shipp brings to mind those mid-1960s Phil Spector productions where major jazzmen trooped into the studio to back up anonymous singers. The CD, which is also being released as a limited edition LP, may be set up as Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp, but the pianist and his associates do more accompanying than opposing. It’s also supposed to mix beats, hip-hop, free jazz and electronic music according to the promo bumf. Well three outa four ain’t bad, but no prizes for guessing which element is almost ignored.

Throughout, the Antipop duo are upfront with its mixture of programmed synths and raps. Vocalized by one and echoed by the other, the lyrics seem to concern themselves with a so-called urban take on love and life, lightly rhymed and stating the obvious. At least that happens when the words can be discerned. There doesn’t appear to be much interaction with the instrumentalists either. At one point on “Slow Horn” for instance, the vocalist (sic) states: “Think there would be some angry listeners if we had some vocals over this, very powerful music here”. Then he proceeds to do just that. Naturally, like those lightweight pop songs which claim to celebrate rock music with lyrics like “long live rock’n’roll”, the words of this tune praise the very “powerful music” which the singer’s’ rap is blocking.

“Monstro City” sounds as if it migrated from a 1950s jazz’n’poetry session — if the lyrical content could pass for poetry. Drummer Guillermo E. Brown, with Shipp and Parker a member of saxist David S. Ware’s quartet, provides the proper bongo-drum type of rhythms, Parker creates a scene-stealing, powerful walking bass section and Shipp provides the piano fills. The fake synthesizer strings are more modern though. Well, as up to date as studio sounds circa 1977, that is.

Stream-of-consciousness lyrics with high school (!) references figure in “Staph”, a real hand clapper which appears to allow Shipp to quote from “Hang on Sloppy”, another Ramsey Lewis hit. “All Blues” does figure in his solo on “A Knot In Your Bop”, perhaps as a nod to Miles Davis’ electric style that prefigured much of this pop-jazz mixing.

Between the synthesizer scratching and pounding drums, the odd bass exchange or vibes line can be heard. In truth, about the only time the “modern jazz” part of the equation comes to the fore is on (no surprise) the final track.

Here Shipp digs into the keyboard to provide some two-handed, swinging bop- inflected notes, Brown’s sizzle cymbal and Parker’s solid time keeping centre the beat and Jamal’s metal bars fairly jump with a slashing, multi-mallet attacks. Multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter makes his first — at least first audible — contribution as well playing trumpet, swimming out of the mix to shape some electric Miles-era brass flourishes. At the very end though, following some brisk drumbeats and the slash of synthesizer chords Carter smears out a very odd-sounding trumpet coda. Could that be a comment on the proceedings?

Should you be an Antipop Consortium fan or a Matthew Shipp completist you’ll probably want these discs. Others may be more wary. Maybe the mix the pianist is aiming for will bear more impressive fruit next time out.

At least when looking for soul-jazz pianists to emulate Shipp didn’t choose Les McCann. If he did, he’d likely be singing as well as playing by now. Perhaps that frightening aural image should be held until other discs in this series appear.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Equilibrium: 1. Equilibrium 2. Vamp to Vibe 3. Nebula Theory 4. Cohesion 5. World of Blue Glass 6. Portal 7. The Root 8. The Key 9. Nu Matrix

Personnel: Equilibrium: Matthew Shipp (piano); Khan Jamal (vibes); William Parker (bass); Gerald Cleaver (drums); Chris Flam (synthesizers and programming)

Track Listing: Antipop: 1. Places I’ve Never Been 2. Staph 3. Slow Horn 4. A Knot In Your Bop 5. SVP 6. Coda 7. Stream Light 8. Monstro City 9. Reel Is Surreal 10. Free Hop

Personnel: Antipop: Daniel Carter (trumpet); Matthew Shipp (piano); Khan Jamal (vibes); William Parker (bass); Guillermo E. Brown (drums); Antipop Consortium [Priest and Beans] (vocals, synthesizers and programming)