Matthew Shipp’s “Codebreaker” Album

CODEBREAKER / SHIPP: Codebreaker. Spiderweb. Disc. Code Swing. Letters From the Galaxy. Green Man. Raygun. Suspended. Mystic Motion. Stomp to the Galaxy. The Tunnel / Matthew Shipp, pno / TAC Forms TAO 07

This recording came my way with no explanation as to its genesis, but there are poems printed inside the fold-out CD sleeve by Mia Hansford, and I see online that Matthew Shipp is doing a solo piano tour with Hansford reading her poetry. Apparently the shape and construction of poetry have changed since the days of Nikki Giovanni and Toni Morrison, because I didn’t care much for it. I found it over-wordy and somewhat confusing.

I hope that doesn’t offend Mr. Shipp, however, because the music in and of itself is fascinating. Long a proponent of free jazz, as witness his plethora of albums with tenor saxist Ivo Perelman, Shipp here uses both more form and more tonality in his own solo compositions. Yet the music is engrossing because it sounds as if he were just sitting at the piano, making up pieces for his own enjoyment and enlightenment. In a way, this album reminded me strongly of Charles Mingus’ solo piano album, which was clearly the work of a composer working out musical ideas at the keyboard.

Since the album and the first selection are titled Codebreaker, there may be some sort of mathematical “code” within the music, but to my ears it sounds like a series of bitonal melodic lines played over a constantly-moving but repeated cycle of chords in the left hand. At times, as in the second selection, Spiderweb, Shipp becomes quite complex, moving fast triplets around with impunity, while in Disc he becomes gentler and more lyrical. In addition to the Mingus influence, I also hear echoes of Lennie Tristano in this music, which is never a bad thing.

Code Swing doesn’t really swing in the conventional sense of the word, though there is a certain boppish feeling to the music, while Green Man is one of the most “outside” pieces on the album, a complex polyphonic web of atonal and bitonal figures, which later moves into repeated, hammered chords. But each track on this album has its fascinating features, and no two selections are exactly alike.

Overall, then, a fascinating work, but I recommend that you listen to each track individually with some time in between in order to achieve maximum effect.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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