Having reviewed several recordings featuring pianist Matthew Shipp (b. 1960), including his most recent trio recording, I took the opportunity to do an interview with this fascinating musician. Shipp, whose mother was a friend of the late Clifford Brown, was born in Delaware, where he began playing piano at age six. Although he later moved into jazz, he also played in rock bands and attended the University of Delaware for one year. Then he moved on to the New England Conservatory where he studied with avant-garde saxist Joe Maneri, a friend of the late jazz pianist Jack Reilly. After moving to New York in 1984, he became assistant manager in a bookstore from which he was eventually fired. In time he became active in jazz groups during the early 1990s, becoming closely associated with saxophonist David Ware’s quartet, which featured avant-garde bassist William Parker. In recent years he has played in a variety of settings, being especially noted for his many recordings with tenor saxist Ivo Perelman (of which I’ve reviewed a few).
Art Music Lounge: Thank you so much for granting me this interview! I’ve admired your playing so very much over the last few years, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to interview you. To begin with, I guess, I’m interested to know at what point in your career you moved into free jazz, or is that what you’ve been playing from the beginning?
Matthew Shipp: As far as the genre that people think of as free jazz –I did not start playing in that way till my early 20s though I had known that was the direction I had wanted to go for years. As a teen I played in a style that was somewhere between Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner. That is how I played before my own style fell together, which happened when I was 22.
AML: Were you trained in classical music first and then moved on to jazz, or were you always a jazz player?
MS: I started in classical music . The first music I was interested in was church music –[my parents were Episcopalian] so it was Protestant hymns –and the church organist was my first piano teacher .. Started when I was 5 –got very, very serious around 10 . Started becoming interested in jazz at around 12 . As a kid I had an intense love of Beethoven and Chopin . Well, the Jackson 5 also.
AML: Who were some of the pianists who influenced you most?
MS: The first jazz piano album I really paid attention to was a solo album by Phineas Newborn Jr. McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Bud Powell, and Monk were my major go-to people. I was always interested in the drama Ellington created at the piano. Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley, and Andrew Hill opened my mind to the possibilities. Also at one point I was mesmerized by the world of Lennie Tristano, with his student Sal Mosca becoming one of my favorite pianists.
AML: How did you first hear Ivo Perelman, and what was it about him that drew you to play and record with him so frequently?
MS: In the 90s I saw Ivo’s name around a bunch, and ended up at a concert of his one night at the Knitting Factory –which I liked but never thought about playing with him . He ended up a while later in a conversation with my wife at the place where she was working and when he mentioned he was a jazz musician she mentioned she was my wife, and he said I have always meant to play with him—she put us in touch—we went in the studio and felt a connection from the first note.
AML: When you begin playing a free-form duet, how do you approach it? What I mean is, you really can’t improvise on, say, just a few random notes that come from a horn, so what is it you think of when a piece begins that way? Are you “hearing” a harmony that could fit those few notes, or what?
MS: From the first note there are decisions to be made –both in terms of tonal areas or implied tonal areas what the harmonic implications are –and in terms of direction and how the landscape will unfold. It is really hard to explain in words how the unfolding of this goes or what the thought process is. Let’s say you know what the possibilities are-you are hyperactive to every aspect of it: the note—the attack—what the attack implies as far as the direction of the improvisation goes –what your partners vocabulary is etc etc etc . In a duo like this, there are 2 wills to meld in one and there is a desire to sculpt an experience that is satisfying both as far as musical logic goes and emotion goes . But it is really hard to talk about this process. There are also certain praxis’s that exist in free jazz since it is a few generations old now and if you play this music you are aware of those praxis which can also be looked at as playing attitudes . Of course you are always trying to explode those or let’s say expand them.
AML: I’ve also recently reviewed your album with Rich Halley, The Shape of Things. How is it that you came to play with Halley?
MS: Rich is the curator of a jazz festival that happens in California . He invited my trio to play the festival. I heard Rich play with his trio when I was there and was blown away by him . We kept in touch and he asked my trio to be a rhythm section on some recording projects with him.
AML: Now let’s talk about your new trio album. The thing that struck me when I first started listening to it was that the first number on it, “Blue Transport System,” sounded much closer to standard piano trio music, as did a couple of other pieces on that CD. Is this something you enjoy doing once in a while?
MS: At the end of the day I am a jazz pianist . I love the jazz tradition –it is my DNA. As far out as some think I am in my brain, there is no breakage between this aspect of my playing and the usual perception of me.
AML: When you compose, or improvise, do you think of the music in terms of from the top (melody line) down or from the bottom (bass and/or harmony) up? I’ve known musicians who have done it both ways.
MS: Both ways –I would say what gives me many faces is that I try to find many, many ways to think through these things. I want to have as many looks as possible within my vocabulary. So at different times I approach things in different ways .
AML: This is kind of an off-topic question, but I’m curious. I read once that you had worked in a bookstore but found it oppressive and left the job. Normally, one would think that working in a bookstore would be a good position to have for an artist because it’s not usually that stressful. Can you share with us what happened to make you leave?
MS: I worked at bookstores for years. There was a switch of store managers in this situation –the old manager had been a friend and I had a lot of freedom –whereas the new manager had a very controlling aspect and a corporate style –this did not work out .
AML: Were there other non-music jobs that you worked at during your early years?
MS: Messenger –Art school model.
AML: I’m also curious as to how the job market is (I’m talking about normally, not now during the Coronavirus crisis) for a free jazz pianist. I know there are special festivals devoted to this kind of music, but are there normally enough jobs for you to make a comfortable living?
MS: Well, I have been lucky—when I played in the David S Ware quartet, we toured the whole world and I was able to parley that into gigs for my trio and solo gigs. I also worked with Roscoe Mitchell those years. I have recorded a lot –and with some of my labels I have had a relationship that is more like patronage than a commercial relationship. I have also put myself out there in a ton of other situations . So I hustle and have been able to make a living at this .
AML: Since there are no longer any jazz radio stations where I live, I was curious as to whether or not free jazz gets much airplay nowadays. What has your experience been like?
MS: College radio has been the key –they usually have at least 1 jazz show and tend to play this side of the music. Also sometimes if they don’t have a jazz show some free jazz might get airplay in an alternative music format .
AML: Can you tell my readers of any future projects you have in mind?
MS: My next project is to get out of bed in the morning and to fight the good fight for another day. I am taking everything 1 day at a time now. I am turning 60 so in some ways I am set in my ways and my major projects are solo piano, my trio, and duos with Ivo .
AML: Thank you for your time!
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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