Matthew Shipp

BLAST from the past:2002

With his unique and recognizable style, pianist Matthew Shipp worked and recorded vigorously during the 1990s, creating music where free jazz and modern classical intertwine. He first became known in the early 1990s as the pianist in the David S. Ware Quartet, and soon began leading his own group -- most often including Ware bandmate, leading bassist William Parker -- and recording a number of duets with a variety of musicians, from the legendary Roscoe Mitchell to violinist Mat Maneri who began appearing on recordings in the 1990s. Through his range of live and recorded performances and unswerving individual development, Shipp came to be regarded as a prolific and respected voice in creative music by the decade's close.

Born in the 1960s and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, Matthew Shipp grew up listening to 1950s jazz recordings. He began playing piano at the young age of five and decided to focus on jazz by the time he was 12. Shipp played on a Fender Rhodes in rock bands while privately devouring recordings by a variety of jazz players.

His first mentor was a man in his hometown named Sunyata, who had an enthusiasm for a variety of studies in addition to music. Shipp later studied music theory and improvisation under Clifford Brown's teacher Robert "Boisey" Lawrey, as well as classical piano and bass clarinet for the school band. After one year at the University of Delaware, Shipp left and took lessons with Dennis Sandole for a short time, after which he attended the New England Conservatory of Music for two years.

Shipp moved to NYC in 1984 and soon met bassist William Parker, among others. Both were playing with tenor saxophonist Ware by 1989, and debuted as a recording artist in a duo with alto player Rob Brown. He married singer Delia Scaife around 1990. Shipp then went on to lead his own trio with Parker and drummers Whit Dickey and Susie Ibarra. Shipp has worked for a number of labels, including FMP, No More, Eremite, and Thirsty Ear. He was in California recently when I talked to him. Matthew is a tall thin intense looking guy who I used to see walking around St Marks and the East Village. He played three sold out nights recently at Bruno�s in San Francisco. His new album is called NEW ORBIT.


AL: Today is Henry Rollins� birthday. It�s 2-13-2001! How did you hook up with Rollins?

Matthew Shipp: I�ll have to give him a call. I knew him from Black Flag. I read an article about him and he was talking about jazz. I knew the guy who wrote the article and ran into him on the street. I told him that I was shocked that Rollins was into jazz. I couldn�t imagine Black Flag doing jazz. This guy told me to send me stuff to Rollins. I got the 2-13-61 address, sent him a package, and he got in touch with me. He�s a unique individual. We hang out sometimes and get along still. We have mutual respect.

AL: How did you meet David S. Ware?

Matthew Shipp: In 1989, Ware put out the word that he was looking for a pianist. William Parker put in a good word for me. He got in touch with me and we started playing together. We did a record called Flight of I.

I was a big fan of Ware's work. Playing with Ware is like being at home. My style of piano really fits his compositions. He gives me freedom to be me. He doesn�t put any restrictions on me. AL: Older Jazz guys all played with each other and knew each other. How do you compare the 1950s in jazz compared to how it is now?

Matthew Shipp: The world is way too fragmented for anything like that to exist now. Things started breaking down in the 1970s. Now we are pass the point of no return. That is not to say that an individual can�t find a path with a heart, or a path that is really rooted in something. As far as looking at things from this to this in a nice sequential way, it doesn�t work because the world is too complex and fragmented. I am a product of a certain tradition. Obviously so. I come out of a 1960s avant garde jazz tradition. That whole spectrum of McCoy Tyner, Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, Paul Blake... I don�t think you can look at it from bam to bam to bam.

AL: Then there�s Classical influences in your work?

Matthew Shipp: Yeah. All that is at my fingertips whenever I want to call on it. But right now I am going through a phase where I want to make a nice record. Something that is just... nice. (laughter). Whatever that means. Some of it is melancholy. But there�s also a cut called �U Feature� where I just lay out. It�s like raw free jazz shooting out of a funnel. The album has a structure where that stuff is submerged, and then it jumps out for one cut, then it goes beneath the surface. This album is more like an ambient free jazz album. It�s meant to have wide open spaces. It�s not crazy.

AL: How much improvisation do you do when playing live?

Matthew Shipp: A good part of what we do is improvisation. The Orbit series is written out. It�s a very classical theme. On the other songs there�s fragments. I approached this album in the same way, as I conceive of it, as Miles David approached Kind of Blue. He went in the studio with a few sketches, and no rehearsals. He knew what he wanted. He knew that he had the musicians to get at what he wanted. But to develop in the studio with a few minimal sketches which served as a backbone so the album would hold together well. That�s how I approached this album New Orbit.

AL: What are some of your influences outside music? I read that you were into Abstract Expressionism?

Matthew Shipp: I�m influenced by millions of things.

AL: New Orbit reminded me of films and film soundtracks.

Matthew Shipp: It has a film noir type of vibe. I could fit in the film world really easily. As far as other influences, I am influenced by everything. Music is a set of abstract sounds, but what goes into it is a whole vocabulary of your own culture and what it means to be alive. Bruce Lee is an influence.

AL: Oh really. His spiritual trip or his kung fu technique?

Matthew Shipp: Well, no. His gracefulness and his whole philosophy surrounding Jeet Kune Do. His whole idea is not being constricted by a form. He developed Jeet Kune Do which is a fight that makes you adjust to reality, as opposed to the dead bones of a form. Even if you learn a form it�s not these movements or those movements, it has to come alive, with skin and blood, and not just be a skeleton. The whole idea of really being rooted in emotion and improvisation, but also working so hard on your material that you transcend your material, you can really adjust to the situation. There�s a degree of highly developed improvisation in Jeet Kune Do and Bruce Lee�s philosophy. It�s not adhering to any form or being in a straight-jacket. To me musical language is all relative, so I feel free to take from the tradition that I come fro, whether it�s the avant grade jazz tradition, classical tradition, or certain aspects of ragtime or even rock and roll.

AL: Who is Mr. Chromosome?

Matthew Shipp: He is an invention of mine as a teenager. You must realize that personality is a construct. We all have �ourselves� but one can play with one�s �self.� You can create a persona.

As a teenager I was fascinated by Sun Ra and his embodiment of certain mythological themes of his personality. I was also intrigued by David Bowie and his character Ziggy Stardust. Mainly because Bowie hid behind this character and was such a shy kid. He had to develop a whole persona for himself. I like the whole man from outer space theme. I created Mr. Chromosome who was a mathematician from another planet who got stuck here on earth. Sort of like David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Mr. Chromosome was a figure who filled my subconscious and allowed me to develop a musical persona. In a sense I am this walking thing with a mathematical system in my head, and I just sit down at the piano and map out this whole realm of language. Like a weird kid, I was pretending that I was him. I don�t know what to say.

AL: Do you like Hip Hop and DJ culture?

Matthew Shipp: I�m a big fan of that. Some rappers really seem to know what I�m doing. I was stopped on the street by Killah Priest. He told me that I made the piano talk. I considered that a compliment. I did a session with A Guy Called Gerald. That was great. He was laying down some intense beats and I just did my thing. I think that sampling is a very valid form of musical thought. For someone to do it well requires musical imagination. You can�t be against it. Any aspect of Hip Hop is closer to the Jazz spirit than some of the conservative notions of people like Winston Marsalis. Max Roach said he understood where Hiphop was coming from. Hip Hop is here to stay. DJ culture is very valid.

AL: What do you think of some of the younger guys and girls getting into Jazz and trying to make a living?

Matthew Shipp: Jazz is a tough cookie. It�s a very hard lifestyle. It�s not for the faint of heart. My advice for them is to drink a lot of water, because that�s healthy for you. It�s easy to get involved, but it�s difficult to have an impact or make a living. I�ve got to a point where I�m doing okay but it�s taken years. It�s been hard. A lot of people just die of bad health and being poor. That�s the easy way out I guess, to leave the planet. Sun Ra died because there wasn�t any heat in the house. It�s hard.


Matthew Shipp Discography (March 2004): http://www.velocity.net/~bb10k/SHIPP.disc.html