February 19, 2003

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Last Exit
By Derk Richardson


Jumping Shipp

MATTHEW SHIPP MUST have been crazy when he announced his intention to retire from recording in 1999. The Delaware-born pianist had released 17 albums under his own name and many others as a member of the David S. Ware Quartet and was garnering increasing acclaim for the way he was forging an original style from the improvising legacy of McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, and Cecil Taylor.

Fortunately for those of us who would rather track the steps, however uneven, of musical explorers than be lulled into complacency by earnest but staid re-creations of sounds gone by, Shipp's hiatus was short-lived. Not long after declaring his self-imposed exile from the studio, he accepted an invitation to curate the Thirsty Ear label's Blue Series. In short order, he issued three new albums for the series – Pastoral Composure (2000), Matthew Shipp's New Orbit (2001), and Nu Bop (2002) – and has appeared on three of its releases, two Spring Heel Jack avant-jazz mixes, 2000's Masses and last year's AMaSSED, and DJ Spooky's 2002 album, Optometry, as well as recordings by Ware and Matt Maneri on the Aum Fidelity label. In the past few weeks he has released two new Blue Series CDs, his own Equilibrium and Antipop Consortium's Antipop Vs. Matthew Shipp.

Equilibrium, with Shipp on piano, longtime collaborator William Parker on bass, and Gerald Cleaver on drums, adds vibes player Khan Jamal to the mix and brings back FLAM (Chris Flam), who first introduced his synthesizers and programming into Shipp's music on Nu Bop. For Shipp fans, jazz listeners in general, and anyone who favors a fairly consistent aesthetic throughout an entire 40-minute album, it's the more satisfying of the two releases. On its nine tracks Shipp continues to develop his concept of "jazz ambient music" and to work on increasing the "elasticity of the jazz language" while staking out a meeting place for DJ culture and free jazz. The performances migrate between the poles of spacious contemplation and hammering urgency. Jamal's vibraphone plays crucial roles as a space-age lounge ingredient and an added propellant for boppish melody exchanges with Shipp. Although FLAM isn't present on every piece, his contributions amplify the urban beats and hip-hop textural orientation that Shipp is after, in what adds up to be a relatively mild-mannered and elegantly trippy fusion.

Antipop Vs. Matthew Shipp is another story, one less likely to please those who identify with either camp in this mock competition. With the experimental hip-hop Antipop Consortium getting lead billing (as well as publishing credits on all but two tracks), the balance tips toward a deliberately metallic and disjointed overall sound marked by in-your-face juxtapositions of acoustic and synthesized elements, occasional raps by Antipop's Priest and Beans, and electronic manipulation of almost all of the performances by Shipp's band (with Guillermo E. Brown replacing Cleaver and trumpeter Daniel Carter making fleeting appearances). Still, the bottom-end beats on this one won't be thundering out of trunks to shiver the timbers of street signs and pedestrians along International Boulevard. And while Shipp remains a powerful force on piano here, whether chopping out chords or sculpting reflective melodies, his usually commanding rhythm section feels more or less tethered to the hip-hop lead.

Antipop, which broke up around the time of this recording, had come together in the late '90s with the self-described mission of becoming "a divergent force to resist the evil empire hip-hop was slowly becoming." Two years ago, Shipp told me, "I've had to build my whole thing counter to everything that exists in that world.... It's just such a paradox that of itself the jazz language is revolutionary but the jazz world and everything around it is just so conservative." One might presume that a merger of such sensibilities would result in something more combustible than Antipop Vs. Matthew Shipp proves to be. But while these challengers have rejected the commercially authorized language that constrains creative possibilities within the popular forms of their respective genres, when they slug it out on the ground where so many other jazz-hip hop efforts have flopped, they fill up the so-called uncharted space with familiar vocabularies from their previous explorations. Their collaborations, especially something like "A Knot in Your Bop," which brackets an allusion to Miles Davis's "All Blues" between driving funk below and hovering raps above, are fun to listen to, but although they open a door to future possibilities, they don't really step through it. Interest in hip-hop and DJ culture has helped revitalize Shipp's recording energies, but it hasn't necessarily given him legs on the street.

Still, what's so bracing about efforts like Shipp's is the willingness to set off in a direction without aiming toward a particular destination, and the recognition that the only real freedom we have, to paraphrase British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, is the freedom to eschew the prescribed definitions of reality and choose a path that opens into an unpredictable future. The risk is being marginalized or labeled mad, but to someone like Shipp, that's old news.