Back Pages #7: Matthew Shipp, Symbol Systems

(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

Banner for the Knit in its second home, the one I visited. Photo: Alicia Bay Laurel, aliciab4.com

On my first visit to the Knitting Factory, I needed a souvenir. This was the late ’90s, after the club had become famous as New York’s avant-jazz nexus, and I was quick to fall in love with it — the multiple performance stages, the free music at the basement bar, the (to me) gritty feel of TriBeCa. Oh, and the fliers stacked on tables and posted on walls, DIY photocopies advertising midweek gigs in unknown lofts and art spaces. This was my first exposure to a live-music scene. Shortly after, I would be tapping the Bay Area’s own scene heavily, but this was my first glimpse of this whole new universe. I needed a souvenir.

So I stared at the shelves of CDs for sale. Tim Berne was my touchstone, so maybe something different — something away from the saxophone direction. Piano, maybe, especially once the cover of Symbol Systems (No More, 1996) caught my eye. It promised the kind of abstract language that I wanted to explore. That’s the one that I took home. 

Symbol Systems has been rereleased on Hatology, but for me, this minimal abstract album cover will always be the “real” one.

On first listen, I remember Symbol Systems feeling truly alien, brimming with this rich new vocabulary. From the clipped chords that open “Clocks,” to the wandering lines later in the piece, to the machine-like hammering in “Harmonic Oscillator,” to the fluid babble of the title track.

I think it helped that Shipp’s instrument is piano, because that meant no microtones. The album doesn’t even feature extended techniques or prepared piano, as I recall. That made it easier to explore. All these years later, the “alien” feeling has worn off — I’m accustomed to the idiom’s of Shipp’s unique language, like the heavy notes matched with the sustain pedal, and the dialects of avant-garde and free improv aren’t as alien to me. But back then, the album was an exciting trip into the unknown.

Excerpt from “Clocks”

I don’t remember the exact timing of all this. This visit must have happened in 1996 or 1997, when my new job led to a week in New York, my first trip on my own, and I took advantage of the summer evenings as much as possible. I might have already heard David S. Ware’s Cryptology by then, as it was the lead album review in a Rolling Stone issue circa 1995, and I’d eventually been intrigued enough to eventually try it out (but too green to really digest it). If that’s the case, maybe I bought Symbol Systems because I recognized Shipp’s name.

Of course, my memories of the Knitting Factory are romanticized. I arrived on the downside of its peak. And while I loved the idea of a club built to foster the avant-jazz scene, it turns out to have all been a happy accident that we have Wayne Horvitz to thank for. Check out the oral history that Jazz Times ran in May.

This Guy Who Keeps Hanging Out With Matthew Shipp

Toxic [Mat Walerian, Matthew Shipp, and William Parker] — This Is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People (ESP-Disk, 2017)

walerian-toxicPolish woodwind player Mat Walerian has hit the radar in the last three years, thanks to his association with Matthew Shipp. Walerian and Shipp have appeared together on a clutch of ESP-Disk albums: a duo (calling themselves The Uppercut), a trio with drummer Hamid Drake (called Jungle), and Shipp’s recent quartet album, Sonic Fiction.

My introduction to Walerian was the trio Toxic, with Shipp bassist William Parker. You’d expect the album to excel anyway, but I find myself savoring the sections where Walerian sits out, leaving the Shipp-Parker duo that’s been working together since the ’90s. On “The Breakfast Club, Day 1,” they’re in a particularly casual, unhurried mode, stepping briskly but not urgently. It’s as if the weight of the years is gone, and they can be themselves without having to prove themselves.

But this is supposed to be about Walerian, and ESP-Disk’s seeming determination to make him famous. He’s worth the effort. Playing mostly saxes and clarinets, Walerian adeptly combines the jazz tradition with the new thing, playing with an easy, unforced confidence. He shifts gears smoothly and — with this trio at least — fits comfortably into the flow.

“The Breakfast Club, Day 1” is a good example, where his sax is in an avant-romantic mode: sweet lines of melody that swerve into brief overblown squeals or tiny bits of free rambling. It’s an easy and confident mood that sets up the Shipp-Parker passage that I enjoyed so much.

The title track has more in that vein, on clarinet, with Walerian mixing old-timey motifs and a pensively swingy feel.

I’m making the album sound happy-go-lucky, but of course there’s Shipp, adding ice-block chords and low-register piano rumbles. He also adds a light touch on “Peace and Respect” supporting Walerian’s bass clarinet with jazzy chord blips — and, later, with comping on the organ, apparently Shipp’s first recording on that instrument. Actually, that track gets happy as well, with the organ doing its sustained-chord thing and Parker’s bass providing a cool swing.

For a complete departure, “Lesson” opens with a double-flute duet (Parker on shakuhachi alongside Walerian’s western flute). The meditative space unfolds slowly, colored by Shipp’s careful splashes. Parker’s bass eventually arrives, patiently plucking notes in an unaccompanied zen atmosphere.

And if you’re looking for a full dose of Shipp, “The Breakfast Club, Day 2” has that stern hammering, sustain pedal fully down, as Walerian, dancing a lot more to the outside, still finds ways to carve melody from the wall of sound. But even that one comes to a swingy conclusion.

Yoshi’s Goes Out

I managed to get to the Go Left Fest at Yoshi’s San Francisco last night, and it was awesome. Six acts, headlined by Matthew Shipp (piano) / Marshall Allen (sax, EVI thingie) / Joe Morris (bass). Not a sellout crowd, sadly, but a warmly receptive one, folks who very much came to hear this kind of music.

Six acts in all, spanning four hours, including intermissions of varying length between acts. I’ve only got time to skim through the specifics.

The important thing is: They’re doing it again tonight (Tuesday June 23) and probably wouldn’t mind your support … It’s very hard for folks like these to tour the west coast, so it would be great to encourage Yoshi’s to continue sprinkling some outside acts into its schedule…

Anyway, the acts:

1. Beth Custer trio/quartet: A couple of pieces from her current Buckminster Fuller project, a couple of jazzy songs, and a catchy old-school jazz stomp called “Wag the Puppy,” written by guitarist David James.

2. Positive Knowledge: Oluyemi and Ijeoma Thomas (reeds, poetry) plus drummer Sunny Murray in the chair Spirit normally occupies. One long piece with lots of phases; generous applause for some of Oluyemi’s more breathtaking, overblowing solos on bass clarinet and soprano sax. Positive Knowledge weaves a spell of joyous improvised jazz, not only in Oluyemi’s playing but in Ijeoma’s recital, which often dips into abstract vocal sounds before returning to grounded, pre-written material. Sunny Murray was in a great mood, joking around with the audience while the band set up.

3. Myra Melford/Mark Dresser: Piano and bass, doing chamber-like compositions with a jazz jump to them (Melford’s specialty) and of course lots of improvising in the middle. Great rapport. My angle, behind the piano, was perfect for this set — I could see Melford’s light touch on the keys (even when she was splashing big chords with palms and wrists) and Dresser’s face and the top of the bass’ fingerboard. They finished with a really fun, small piece that gave Dresser a chance to goof around.

4. Ismael Reed: An author and poet, Reed performed with a band of sax (or clarinet or flute), piano, guitar, and drums. (Sunny Murray again, IIRC.) He started heavy, with pieces about the nonsensical waste of war and the unfair villification of “welfare queens.” Most of the remaining pieces dealt with jazz and jazz icons. Straight-up jazz backing throughout. Reed ended with the band playing “That’s What Friends Are For” — a bit cheesy, but his text was a thank-you note to various organs (heart, liver, and brain, mainly) for getting him this far.

5. Roswell Rudd: With Lafayette Harris on piano, who didn’t get enough credit from the crowd for his mix of standards-jazz styles, avant-garde dissonances, and rhythm-opening spacing. The set, sometimes augmented by trumpeter Earl Davis, was a mix of inside-out pieces (fairly straight stuff with free-ranging soloing) and some out-there screechiness. Fun, but Rudd lost track of the time; he announced a waltz piece written for his wife’s recent birthday but didn’t have time to play it. “You’ll hear that one tomorrow!” he said.

6. Marshall Allen, Matthew Shipp, Joe Morris: Playing together for the first time, and you always wonder if “first time” is going to be a letdown. It wasn’t. Shipp was stormy on piano throughout — in fact, I don’t think he ever stopped playing during any of the three or four long improvisations they did, aside from a Morris bass solo early on.

Allen was in prime form, wearing an Arkestra outfit and playing what I think was the “EVI,” an electronics gizmo controlled by a combination of breath, buttons, and dials. Lots of futuristic weirdness to be had there. The EVI produced the same kinds of sounds you’d get from laptop electronics, but with a more direct sense of control. It fit well but was turned up a bit too loud; Shipp’s playing is so tumultuous, it ought to eclipse the sax/reeds voice in spots, I think.

Again, I was behind the piano, so I got to watch the Matthew Shipp fireworks show. Man, he’s terrific. His hands seem to be flying everywhere in random stabs, but the chords that come out make so much sense. (Caveat: I suspect any pianist playing free jazz is like that.) He’s got a couple of trademark moves that were interesting to see in person — like one where he pokes a chord stacatto and (I think) hits the sustain pedal an instant too “late,” for a distant kind of echo/reverb. I’d never seen Shipp play before, so this was a particular treat. I’m going to go put his Symbol Systems solo CD on now.

Joe Morris gets a raw deal here — not only is the bassist often the hardest element of a combo to describe, but I couldn’t get a clear view of him with the piano blocking the way. His mercury-fluid guitar style does seem agreeable to the fast, wide-ranging wanderings of free-jazz bass, and that theory proved out well in this set.

Shipp +2, Braxton +1

Matthew Shipp Trio — Harmonic Disorder (Thirsty Ear, 2009)

shippYou can almost forgive someone for mistaking this for “cool traditional jazz.” Shipp’s piano trio frequently slips into some standard-sounding club-jazz soloing, with brisk, bright keys and deliciously wooden thickness to Joe Morris’ bass plucking. Whit Dickey on drums adds a chattery jazz feel and some nice cymbals rhythms.

But this is still Matthew Shipp, even minus the electronica dabblings he’s worked on in the last decade. On “Quantum Waves,” he sledgehammers the low notes, while the standards, “There Will Never Be Another You” and “Someday My Prince Will Come,” get the flying-off-the-road free-jazz treatment. “Roe” is catchy, but its sinister low-register melody is less cocktail hour and more SxSW; same with the creeping rainy-day comfort of “Mel Chi 2.” And then you’ve got the band just spouting large on “Zo Number 2.”

Anthony Braxton and Kyle Brenders — Toronto (Duets) 2007 (Barnyard, 2008 )

BarnyardBraxton’s Ghost Trance Music is like a brick wall, and to some listeners probably just as opaque. Seemingly endless matrices of nonrepeating pokes and stabs, one clearly discrete note after another, makes for an abstract kind of march that really stands out when, say, played during a radio show. Everything slams to a halt while the beat pulses on.

There’s a lot going on under the surface, though, and a listen to the full 30- or even 90-minute pieces on Rastascan‘s Six Compositions (GTM) 2001 reveals passages of passionate, jazzy soloing and playful individual improv. You can lose yourself wandering the magnetic fields of the pulse.

But that’s with 10 players; how does GTM translate to just two? It turns out, those freer moments stand out even more, as Braxton and Brenders work through lots of mood changes. They’ll play in composed unison for a minute or two — rigid, then free, then fast, then a slow break then fast again … and then shift into “soloing,” or at least a looser, improv-spiced passage. Moods and speeds can change every couple of minutes. It’s like a series of tricks joined together with brief improv periods, and it can be engrossing.

Toronto (Duets) is a 2-CD set, one composition per CD. Disk 1 is noticeably faster and perkier overall, but Disk 2 is equally rewarding, with some nice gentle improvising in the quieter spaces.