The Still Point of a Turning World: His Life and Music
Interview by Fabio Rojas
Matthew Shipp is a New York based pianist and composer. He was raised In Wilmington, Delaware and attended the University of Delaware and the New England Conservatory of Music. Shipp has been at the forefront of jazz and improvised music since the 1990's. His musical style draws on jazz, contemporary classical music, and electronic music. He has recently released four albums, To Duke, Re-union, Village Mothership, and Codebreaker. He has performed with other artists such as David S. Ware, William Parker, DJ Spooky, Rob Brown, and Ivo Perlman. On November 5, 2021, we spoke about his music and career. The original text has been edited for clarity.
In the Beginning
PSF: The first question is: what were you like as a kid?
MS: [Laughter] That depends on who you ask. If you ask my mother, she would've told you I was a very determined, focused and stubborn kid... If you asked my teacher, I was very inquisitive and a pain in the ass. And if you asked me, I would just say when you're a kid, everything is a mystery and it's a great time for that reason because you're trying to unravel everything, which is all a mystery.
PSF: Inquisitive. I think that's a great way to describe the music too. I always feel when I listen to your records or CD's that it's an exploration rather than a lecture.
MS: Yeah. I mean... as humans, our brains are finite in a sense, in that physical matter, but like beyond the finite is an infinite. You have to have a question because you can't contain infinity, or you can't know infinity- It's always trying to further delve into what's next and the other side of the wall.
PSF: Were you a prodigy or did you play a lot of music as a kid, or did that kind of come into your high school years?
MS: I started playing at five and I would say I obviously had some ability. I got dedicated at 12, like really dedicated. I got A's. I had a repertoire, which, you know, I could play probably 30 to 60 minutes of classical music by memory. I could do little kind of recitals for friends and stuff. I mean, I don't know what "prodigy" really means. I'm not discouraged by teachers. I'll put it that way. They weren't sure which direction I was going. But they thought I had the tools, if I wanted to pursue music, to do it right.
PSF: In your interviews, you talk about some of your teachers that you've had. One that people ask about a little bit is Dennis Sandole. He has a very illustrious list of alumni such as yourself. So could you tell me a little bit about what was it like to take a lesson from him? Like, was he teaching keyboard? Was he teaching theory?
MS: His most illustrious student is John Coltrane. He was this very unique person and teacher. I mean, everything about him was very unique. His lessons were kind of for all instruments. He was a guitarist himself, but probably the majority of his students were most likely guitarists. In fact, Pat Martino, who just died a couple of days ago, was a student of Dennis'. Dennis would basically give lessons that were 20 minutes. They were kind of improvisation theory lessons. And he had a basic structure to the lesson that was the same for every student. But aspects of the actual contents changed- he claimed to be able to see into your soul and see you years down the line and write out exercises for you, throw it out yourself.
I mean, that's the claim he made. Do I believe that? Yes, I do believe he kind of had the ability to do that because all the students' lessons were a little different- they were the same outline, but there was a subtle differences in how he wrote them out. There was a line he wrote based on chord progressions. Every weekend, you would memorize that in 12 keys. And then there were other facets of the lesson too. Like, some of it involved taking some of his materials and then we read composing standards so that you had a whole new creation. You took something old, you would take new material and kind of grafted onto it and then come up with something completely new. There were other various aspects of the language, the major part was aligned, and it was an ABC three times a month. The first three months or different lines based on different compositional principles or chord changes or modal activities or placements of notes.
The fourth week was all composition. And you would go through his thesaurus of exotic scales that he had put together over the years. But there was this other thing called "rhythm studies" where he would give you a rhythm and you had to create a composition based on the rhythm, using some of the materials from your A, B, and C week. There were materials for your ear training exercises. So it was a whole assortment of stuff you did, but the major part of it was the line that he gave you the first three weeks, which you would learn in 12 keys and memorize.
PSF: It sounds like he had entire methodology, all developed by the time that you got to him.
MS: Oh yeah. I mean, he had been teaching since the fifties and I got there in like '79 or '80... So yeah, he had a very developed method of teaching and again, his students are all different. The way the literature manifested is different and it's a testimony to his ability to celebrate the individuality of each of his students but yet have a serious discipline that they all go through to try to connect to themselves.
PSF: When you mentioned exotic scales, that reminds me of a biographical note about John Coltrane. He had that big Slominsky thesaurus of musical scales. Is that something that Dennis pushed, like to really encourage you to have a sonic palette of different scales?
MS: In fact, with the Slominsky book, I had to, you know, because Coltrane practiced out of that book and I think McCoy Tyner practiced out of it. I discovered it, you know, been using it for a couple of years before I went to Dennis, who encouraged using that book... We all love Dennis, but he used to say really funny things that were, say, extremely - I don't want to say egoistic - but you know, he had a real, a very high sense of himself as a teacher, which he should have. But he always said, "don't let this immense deep book supplant his literature," but he did encourage us to continue to explore it. And, you know, I used to write out exercises based on that book and he was encouraging of that.
I think Coltrane discovered that book when he was studying at the Granoff School of Music. In Chasing the Trane, that book by J.C. Thomas, which is one of the first Coltrane biographies, I think he traces Coltrane practicing out of that book to Barry Harris, but that would have been in the early or late fifties. And by the time I got to Dennis, he was respectful of that book, encouraged me to keep doing exercises from it, but encouraged me to spend way more time with his actual literature.
PSF: How did you know that the kind of jazz that you're doing today would be your path? How did you know that you weren't going to be like playing, you know, bebop standards or become a classical pianist?
MS: All right, interesting question because I knew and I didn't know. And what I mean by that is, well, I didn't mean to be a concert pianist either. It has to be a hundred percent focused. So if you're outside of that focus, it's just not going to work out. They look for very specific things and once you slightly deviate from that, it's over, like Nina Simone not getting into the Curtis Institute. Yeah. There might've been some racism involved, but I'm just saying that if you have a certain element of something else in your blood musically, you're just not going to make it in the classical world because there's a very strict way of seeing things. So once I delved into jazz and I was really serious into that, the classical world was not going to happen because you have to see things their way and be involved with a hundred percent of your energy.
[Ed.: The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article detailing the reasons that Simone was not accepted to the Curtis Institute. The articles suggests that Simone, at that point, was not competitive and notes that the school had previously accepted Black applicants. See ""Curtis Institute and the case of Nina Simone (inquirer.com)."]
How did I know as a teenager that I wouldn't end up like maybe having a trio in the way that Bill Evans had a trio or being a studio musician? When I first started hearing Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill, I knew, and Coltrane. I knew that's where my heart lies and I knew I wanted to be a composer like Monk, where you did your own music. At the same time, you're really young and you're just trying to gather materials and trying to grow. And there was a time in my life I thought I might be a studio musician too. So I was like spending loads of time sight reading. I knew where my heart was, but I wasn't really sure.
And, you know, there was a long period in my life I did see myself as kind of having a straight-ahead trio in the tradition of the Ahmad Jamal Trio or the Bill Evans Trio and playing supper clubs and stuff like that, which I did kind of do that as a very young adult. But, you know, it's just kind of weird. There's a kind of schizophrenia involved because you're doing all kinds of things and you're contemplating the possibility of all kinds of things, but yet, your heart knows where you're really going to enter. So I had to answer that question saying, I both knew and didn't know. I was doing many things, contemplating many possibilities, but at the same time, you know, my inner GPS was very strong and leading me to where I was, and I kind of knew I was going to end up in this realm, you know?
The Path Not Taken
PSF: Now I want to get back to Sun Ra and John Coltrane in a second, but I want to ask you kind of a follow-up question to something you just mentioned about the classical world. It's interesting because I work at Indiana University, Bloomington, which has this very well-known classical and jazz program. You see that path and that kind of focus that you're talking about. You know, you can tell some of the instructors they're prepping their students for auditions at Julliard. You have to focus on that 100%. But the question I had for you was about Wynton Marsalis. I've never met him, I've never spoken to him; this is a question of genuine curiosity. If the classical world is so focused, how has he been able to kind of swing both worlds? Do you have any insight on that?
MS: I don't say I have insight on it. I would say I have opinions on it. Sure. And my opinions are that trying to straddle with the jazz and classical world has hurt him both ways. Obviously, not financially and career wise, but musically. I have not listened to many of his classical recordings, but my sense from what little I've heard and seen him live, he could affect a really commercial classical sound, but yet his interpretations of pieces would have been wanting if you really delved in. That's my kind of opinion after hearing some things. I'm not a fan of his jazz playing, and I wouldn't say that playing classical that has hurt his phrasing or note choices in my opinion.
[Ed.: Readers can consult this article about Marsalis' career where he discusses the decision to record less classical music. ]
But I would say that, yeah, I don't think it's really possible to do those at a high level. I say that because it's so demanding for interpretations of certain classical pieces, what the classical world expects from you... [it's] like a completely commercial reality that's just arisen on its own. In the context of where we live now, how people view interpretations of certain pieces, and it might have nothing to do with the creative spirit that they were written in or what the composer actually intended back then. But I'm just saying that it's just so demanding. The exactness of the headspace you need to occupy to do that. I don't see how you can do both.
I just listened to Bud Powell's version of a Bach tune and you can hear how he could never make it in the classical world for the reason that his frame was so innate, his phrasing as a jazz musician was so innately a part of his being that he would never create notes in the way that you kind of need to like get accepted actually as a classical player. And that's a compliment, by the way. If you're going to be playing jazz on a very deep level, your actual phrasing is so embedded in your body and it's so embedded in your consciousness that you kind of can't get away from it. Which is like my sense of Bud Powell, Charlie Parker. They could never get away from the actual phrasing that they did because it's just so deep and it's so unforced and it's so unconscious in a way.
[It's] just the existential reality of their life. So anyway, that's the fact of what I said earlier that, you know. Nina Simone is very bitter that she didn't get accepted into the Curtis Institute as a classical pianist... I mean, she could sit down and play Beethoven probably and sound good... But, in my opinion, the fact that she had a strong voice inside of her from another culture, it would just kind of slightly throw things off kilter in the way that they look for in the classical world. I don't even know how deep, deep classical trumpet repertoire actually gets... I believe that he [Marsalis] himself might have said something to this effect in an interview- that's why he stopped doing as much of it... I don't really follow him. So that's all I can say about that, but you know, he himself [should] quit trying to do both.
PSF: I totally feel what you're saying because my main instrument is trumpet. And I remember when I was in graduate school, not for music, for sociology, I was asked to fill in and do a trumpet part for some local chamber orchestra or something. And the part was like very simple, but then the director came over and he's like, 'your sound is completely wrong.' You know, it's like you have to play like a bell. Like, what are you talking about? He told me in the Baroque era, they would kind of play like a bell a little bit and that was the intonation. And I was like, 'oh my God, I had no idea.' Nobody ever told me this. So it's just like, 'how do you make a sound? How do you make a quarter note is actually a pretty foundational and very different. 'Yeah, totally, totally get what you're saying.
MS: I'm not going to say there aren't people that cannot like play in a symphony orchestra and then go to a jazz session. It sounds really good. I'm just talking about to really pull it off on the highest level...
The Piano Heritage in Free Jazz
PSF: I want to ask you a little bit about pianists in the free jazz tradition and what you draw from them and how that informs your playing. We've mentioned McCoy Tyner before.
MS: Yeah, McCoy is from Philly and I'm from Wilmington, Delaware, which is 30 minutes away. So there's kind of a continuum that goes between Wilmington and Philly. So there's a regional thing. First of all, it's a regional field. And then there's the fact that he's the architect in the Coltrane universe of culture, of the piano as an orchestral accompaniment to Trane and that Coltrane universe was a big impact on me. There's a spiritual dimension to his playing. I'm not going to define what I mean by 'spiritual dimension,' but there is a quest to figure out what all this is about. What I love about McCoy is that it's the perfect balance between kind of post-bebop and post-Bud Powell aspects of impressionism. Also, he Africanized the piano. Africanizing the piano actually really adds an impetus to the rhythm. I'm not saying he sat around listening to African drum albums and sat at the piano and tried to do that. But I'm just saying that there's definitely some impulse to mother Africa, at the same point, there's a rolling impressionistic sound. It's really very obvious if you listen to McCoy's very early albums. For me also, there's the regional thing from Philly to me in Delaware where I grew up. So he works with me on all those levels... He gets the richest music and it kind of fits into my whole 'jazz is mysticism' type of thing.
PSF: What about Don Pullen?
MS: I've seen Don Pullen live a couple of times where I was absolutely blown away. And I really think, you know, when he was focused and on, he was great. I didn't really listen to him a lot growing up. I had a couple of albums he was on and I think I had one of his albums. He's not really not an influence on me, but I've heard him live a couple of times. When he was on, he was phenomenal. But when he was on, he is powerful, you know what I mean? I mean, powerful. A lot of people think I am influenced by him because there's times I play standards and stuff. The whole way of trying to bring this tradition and the free jazz tradition together. And, you know, there's things he did that might kind of fit that paradigm. But I didn't really listen to him a lot growing up, but again, I really did see him a couple of times where it was like, wow. And I was talking to Butch Morris once and told me about some organ thing he heard Don Pullen do. I never actually really heard him play organ, but I'll take Butch's word for it if it matches the intensity of what I heard a couple of times.
PSF: Yeah. It's really interesting. I don't hear a lot of Dom Pullen or that kind of thing, because he plays very tightly clustered notes and you play - I'm not a pianist - but I would say that you play with way more open voicings. How about Cecil Taylor?
MS: Well, you know, that's always the elephant in the room. You associate any pianist with the term 'free jazz' around their name with him. You know what I mean? He was at one point in my life, an idol. I was very involved with his music. At an early age, I knew if that if I went in this direction that he would be a hindrance. I very early on adopted a mindset as far as revolting against him. I became friends with him at one point and then we had a big falling out because I really liked Bill Evans and he hates Bill.
PSF: I did not know that.
MS: It's kind of impossible to be involved in this area, not having gone through him and listened to him. But at the same time, I always try to generate my music from a whole different set of premises than he did. That also means that somehow you could have the same influences. but go in different directions because he was really influenced by Lennie Tristano very heavily. And I got really involved with Tristano's music at a young age and Cecil did too. He actually even took a lesson with Lennie. It was a disaster and he told me about it personally. His exact words to me was that Lennie had said some stuff to me about me and he was wrong.
I dipped into some of the same source material, which I would say is Ellington, Monk and Lennie Tristano. But kind of took it a whole different direction than he did. So the short answer is that in one way, he's an influence in the sense that he had the balls to do what he did and break away from what some people see as their tradition and the way he did. As far as the actual content, I realized that early age that's his system and you can't get very far with it. So stay away.
PSF: What about Bill Evans?
MS: I'm a big Bill Evans fan. I love Bill Evans. People get kind of shocked sometimes, but Bill Evans is somebody who I see as really having a lot of deep self-knowledge about who he is and who he was. He never tried to be anything other than what he was. And he developed a very focused music based on his abilities. He never tried to be Red Garland or Wynton Kelly- he understood that he wasn't that type of player. I mean, he understood that he wasn't Bud Powell, or he really understood that he wasn't Horace Silver. It's just very true to who he was and his own vision and developed accordingly in a very honest way. And he's always Bill Evans and there's never any bullshit. It doesn't mean that I, as a fan, like everything he does, but I know it's a no-bullshit zone when you go there. It works for what it's supposed to be.
PSF: I was playing "Alice in Wonderland" for my daughter last night. She really enjoyed it because she played that as a child and now she's kind of a teenager doing violin and I thought she would really like that.
A Creative Language
PSF: In my notes, I wrote "the Shipp language." Maybe we could start by talking a little bit about your really distinctive sound and approach to piano playing. What are the elements of your language? How would you describe it to people?
MS: Well, I don't know if I could. I mean, I always say from a technical music standpoint, I don't know if it's worthwhile saying it. I would say the vision behind it is more important than saying that these are the elements, harmonically, rhythmically. I would say that I veer towards pan modalism. I really don't like to get stuck in a mode and, even though there's times for certain pieces, I do it, but I'm not a tunnel. I sometimes veer towards aspects of hinting at a tonality, even though it's always kind of more pantonal. I always go for a lyrical core. I always say that I deal with pure vibration and all the elements that are variations from trying to identify a pure vibration and go off it and then try to construct an organism that expands based on a pure vibration and everything I do could be seen as a variation from it.
But that's more of a metaphysical thing than like an actual musical thing. I would say that like a lot of the elements from traditional jazz piano are there but shuffled around in a way. I would say that in the same way that people have loads of experiences during the day, and you go to sleep at night and you have a dream and kind of millions of elements from different aspects of your day could be put into one composition of a dream. It's kinda the same, the way I shuffle aspects of jazz piano tradition that, you know, gets fractured and shuffled in bizarre ways that I let the unconscious take over.
PSF: When you compose or when you improvise or perform, you can use traditional structures, like a blues progression or rhythm changes but you're not really married to it. You can kind of shift between different blocks of composition.
MS: You're free to do anything. Go up on stage and take a sledgehammer and destroy the piano. If I do it at a concert hall, they want me to pay for the piano... I mean, you have to play a certain way, I guess, but within the construct of your left hand, on the piano, popping the changes down, it's really hard to get away from not sounding very, very traditional when you do that. My vocabulary is pretty much very traditional and I don't even do things that other avante-gardists do like big clusters where the notes are indeterminate.
I mean, they might be indeterminate in the sense that I just go for something, but it's part of a system that I have worked at whatever I end up hitting. But I don't do things like... Pullen used to use the back of his hands. Cecil uses his elbows sometimes. Sometimes, Charles Ives would use the board on the piano. I mean, everything I do, vocabulary wise, is very traditional. As far as form, you know, I, I just write, so I don't really know how it comes out. I tend not to do more traditional things with chord changes that repeat in regular cycles, like a bebop tune.
My writing tends to be like ideas that are supposed to generate like-minded gestures. The writing gives you kind of an idea of gestures and then the improvisation after that, it's supposed to be a continuation of that.
There was this guy that played with Sun Ra. His name was Moses and when you asked me what's actually in my vocabulary and then we were talking about distinguishing from like Cecil Taylor. I remember early on, he [Moses] heard a tape of me and he said, "nobody ever stacks rhythms like you do here." And he's talked about the way I use pulse and stack rhythms on top of it and how that was completely, like never done like that before in the history of music, you know? And I know what he means.
I have a hard time actually putting in the words what it is, but it's some type of internal pulse that I can follow up one day and I, on top of it, can take rhythms from all over the place and, and kind of start stacking them. I know what he means. I can't put it into words, but he was touched to say that in that way now.
PSF: How do you practice? Like if, for example, you're not staying within a bop idiom of a cycle of chord changes when you're practicing?
MS: Well, my practice routine is going to remain a secret. Or if I have students sometimes, you know, I let them know certain ways I practice. But I would generally say that there's a point where you're just trying to learn everything synced together, language and materials, and you're not sure what direction exactly you're going in, but you're firmly established in your sound and your direction.
The thing with the live gig magic comes in when you're completely relaxed and relaxation is the key thing where you just are kind of above it all and you don't even care. You're just completely relaxed. The practice becomes more of a conduit to induce the total relaxation by just repetition, by having your hands in the pie a lot. And so on some levels at a certain point, it doesn't really matter what you practice- it does, but it doesn't.
So there's been times where I am actually just practicing to get my hands really into the instrument to kind of relax my hand position a little bit, to get my hands closer to the keys. There are times when I want to get a really specific thing in my vocabulary. So I might kind of practice music that has those things, if I'm trying to get it, but I have my own whole host of exercises and things that I've developed over years and years and years that I complete on this analogy.
And, you know, it would be time to get into explaining exactly how and what that is. But the majority of my practice are those things that are still in my own way of practicing and my own methodology over many years. And I have it down to a really distilled way of going about it right now. There's other times where you just kind of want to open your mind. So you might like just play or you might practice standards, or you might practice, you know, folk tunes or whatever, just to kind of take your mind somewhere else. But there's times when it's about kind of creating an empty space in your head or creating a mindset or creating something even contrary to what you do.
That gives you something to push against. But there's all kinds of ways to answer that question. I practice in different ways at different times. It's like weightlifting also. I mean, you kind of want to stretch certain muscles and then you got to relax and stretch other muscles and, or, and work on other muscles. I think there's not a specific way for a bodybuilder to work out too. So I'm just saying that there are specific things that they all do, but, you know, you gotta kind of get a routine that works for you. I think that's what it comes down to musically, getting a routine that works for you whenever you need whatever your motivations are and whatever your kind of goals.
PSF: Now, let me ask you a little bit about performance routines. So when you record or you go up on the stage to do a live performance, is this the kind of thing where you have lines or compositions written out, or how do you generate the music in a way that's truthful to what you're trying to get at?
MS: There's a mixture of just total improvisation, your own compositions, other people's compositions. And it kind of all gets all those get thrown into the pot. Depending on the venue, what I think the audience is and the mood of the moment- a performance can be all the above, two or three of the above. One of the three of the above, depending on what the environment is and what the mood of Ironman.
The Improvising Community
PSF: Right now, you've got a pretty a rich career with a lot of different groups, collaborations, and solo recordings of performances. There's so much stuff to go through. I want to hit on at least a couple of big points. In retrospect, what do you take away from the time you spent with the David S. Ware group?
MS: The David S. Ware Quartet was definitely a turning point for me career-wise and musically. Just being out with it, being a power quartet, I was there for 16 years. It kind of helped me realize my teenage dreams of being in some modern group that had aspects of the Coltrane quartet in that it had a big tenor player fronting it, who had a music that was based on some spiritual kind of idea of modern jazz... David has his way of organizing music that's a lot different than what I do in my own groups, but it definitely gave me a chance to look at a slightly different way of organizing music than my own but one that was close enough in spirit where I could take an active role and help him flush out his vision. I was completely dedicated to his vision for 16 years. I was in the group and like any food, you know, you take it and you digest it and helps your organism. That's what it was.
PSF: Is there any particular recording from the Ware group that you particularly relish or enjoy?
MS: Yeah, I need to go back and listen to a lot of them. I listened to Flight of I like eight or nine months ago, which was the first album he did for DIW and it got picked up by Sony. And I really, really like that. I also listened to some parts of the Freedom Suite. We did the Sonny Rollins suite. I really liked that a lot recently. I listened to that about six months ago... When I listened back to those, it's such a different me and it's such a long time ago, but, you know, it's sometimes shocking. I'm like, "oh, that was my sound back then." But I generally get something out of the recordings when I listened back to them. And I probably, at some point, should go back and listen to a whole swath of them.
PSF: What about duets? What is interesting about playing in a duet as opposed to kind of a more structured group, like the Ware Quartet?
MS: I kind of consider myself a specialist in duets, especially with sax players, I have a whole history of that. I have a bunch with Rob Brown, alto player, and I've been doing a lot with Ivo Perlman, the tenor player. Plus, I have duets out with Roscoe Mitchell, David S. Ware, Sabir Mateen, Daniel Carter, Darius Jones, and Mat Walerian. It's a format that I kind of specialize in. I get excited by a sax player that has an authentic jazz phraseology and language. I fancy myself as really being able to kind of enter their soul and flesh out the details and give them a bed to bounce off of. I consider that a specialty that I've honed over the years by doing it so much. It's a form of communication, a mode of communication that I think has not been explored a lot in jazz history, but I'm kind of become a specialist at it. I think there's an intimacy in that language that gets at a very specific thing that a lot of other jazz rhythm sections do not exactly get you in the way that format gets you to it.
PSF: I want to dig into here a little bit just for an extra minute and think out loud. Would you say there's something that happens in the piano-sax duet that maybe hasn't been quite explored before? Could you give me an example? For example, when I think of duets, I might think of Rashid Ali and Coltrane and some other folks like that, but what happens at the piano-sax format, that's a little bit different?
MS: I would say if you want to answer that, listen to my records, the duets with sax players. It's hard to quantify in words. Sure. I know that like the whole idea of I'm trying to be a vortex and suck the sax into the core of your sound, and the way you generate kind of the rhythmic background without drums and bass in that setting, that just creates a different music. You know, it's a whole different kind of premise and a whole different music. Then if you have a rhythm section and you are taking your allotted role, or even if you're being rebellious against the allotted role of a piano in the rhythm section in a jazz quartet, it's just a different kind of universe that comes into being. I don't really know historically- I mean, growing up, I was actually just thinking about this the other day. Since I've done so many piano-sax duets, did I listen to them a lot?
I couldn't remember any albums. I remember having a record as a kid that was a sax-piano duet was a Braxton and Muhal Richard Abrams album [Duets 76]. I remember really liking it. There was a version of "Maple Leaf Rag" by Scott Joplin, which is really fun the way they do it. And I really liked that. There was one ballad on the album I really liked- it was a version of "Miss Ann" by Eric Dolphy on that album. But you know, I don't recall like thinking that they defined this super hyper rarified space. I liked those cuts and a few other things about the album, but I don't recall like listening to many piano-sax duets growing up. I just don't. I mean, again, that's the only record in my album collection (and I have quite a few albums) that I recall being a piano-sax duet.
So listening-wise, growing up, it was not a focus of mine but I think I ended up playing with the sax players. Like I played with Rob Brown before I moved to New York. I met him in Boston. And there was another sax player named Gary Joynes who lived in Boston at the time. And I used to play with him and we just started, we were playing every day and it just ended up being piano-sax duos. So, you know, it kind of was happenstance. That was a situation that I worked in a lot.
PSF: Let me ask you to reflect a little bit about working with DJ Spooky. What are the big take-home points for you?
MS: The first thing is the people that I work with in the electronic world. Before I worked with him, they knew my music and I was always astonished to meet people like that. You know, I meet them at a party or something, or, you know, I used to kind of go out to here... I mean, not to hear DJs particularly, but I might be in a place and somebody like DJ Spooky would be spinning. When I met a bunch of people I'm worked with, including Antipop Consortium, they knew my work and I was always astonished... The people I collaborated with tended to be Black males that were around my age group and were in New York. So the common denominator was an age thing, a generation thing, in some cases, a racial thing. And in some cases, being a modern artist in a metropolitan area, simply the same metropolitan area where you're of the same generation, you grew up watching the same TV shows. Your aspects of things that were in your central nervous system were very similar, even though you might be in a slightly different genre. So it was just really easy to talk to these people. We have a lot in common, we read a lot of same books, you know what I mean?
It was just like a very natural thing. So then the idea of collaborating. Why not? Especially since they listen to the same type of music I do and I listened to the type of music they did. And in fact, you know, I kind of grew up playing funk a lot too. As a teenager, I played in some funk bands. Not that it was electronic, like in the early 21st century was funk per se, but I'm just saying that, you know, playing the 'popular music' in a quasi-popular setting with some type of funk background is not foreign to me. So it seemed to be kind of a natural thing at that time that people like us gravitate to it together. And it, it seemed very organic.
The Present and the Future
PSF: Now that we've talked about these different groups over time and your own work, what do you think are the major changes between the early you and the you today?
MS: I think the one major change when I first hit the scene, I was really on a mission against jazz. I'm a jazz musician, I'm a jazz musician in my DNA, but when I was in college, like I wrote this term paper for my English class and it was called "All Forms of Jazz Must be Annihilated and Destroyed." That was the topic of term paper. And when I moved to New York, deconstruction was the mindset. The past has to be destroyed and we had to start fresh. The only problem with that is I really liked jazz. You know, that's the major problem with that. My whole DNA is that of a jazz musician. I guess it's served its purpose for that time of my life. But I grew to accept the fact that I'm a jazz musician, that's what I really love even though what I do is considered really forward looking. I'm not in battle with the history of jazz. I'm content to just be me, but still partake of the collective mindset that is the jazz vocabulary or the jazz language and luxuriate in it. When I was first hitting the scene, I was on a mission to destroy. That's funny. When I first started playing with Ware, he used to always say, "call what we do gangster jazz."
I think also that I guess I am still at odds of sorts even though I've gotten a lot of acclaim. I'm still at odds with the jazz industry. I'm not as intense about being at odds with them as I used to be, but I am still at odds with them and that there's some people that have seen the amount of like acclaim I've gotten over the years that might seem strange. But if you're on the inside of it, you would know how begrudgingly and hard that has been. That has nothing directly to do with the actual music. But I would say I'm a little, a little less at odds or war with the jazz industry.
PSF: Why do you say 'at odds'? That puzzles me because I have a lot of your CD's and I've listened to you and I've seen you perform live. What do you mean by that?
MS: I still think there's some people that would even pet me on the head and say very nice things, but I go against the grain to them, with how they position themselves within the industry. I go so against the grain because of my persistence and the fact that I've been so persistent and so on it for so long. They've had to come around and pat me on the head. But I still go against the grain. Some people from the outside looking in might say, "you have the record deals, you do play festivals, you do get coverage." Me being on the inside, there's certain things. You just feel that you're just not welcome certain places and they pat you on the head. I'm talking really insider stuff right now, but, whatever it is, that's the price you pay for trying to do your own thing. It's kind of unavoidable. I understand it. I don't really have any bitterness about, about that in any way. It's part of the physics of how this planet, how the world is constructed.
PSF: Now let's take a few minutes to talk about the albums that you sent. Thank you - it was the highlight of October to get these. It's such a great survey. That's all I can say after listening to it. You have the Duke Ellington album, the duo album with William Parker, a wonderful solo album, and then Village Mothership. We can take a few moments to talk about how these albums came to be and kind of where you're going.
MS: The solo album, Codebreaker, today is the release date for it.
PSF: Okay, cool.
MS: Solo has become one of my favorite formats and I think it's the format in some ways that I need the most because I am impressionistic. Baroque, all those elements, and romantic elements, completely enter the fray there. And the phrasing in a solo thing. You really had to find yourself because you are the phrase, you are the time-space of music by yourself. Your ideas really breathe in the appropriate - I don't know if 'appropriate' is the right word - but it breathes in the space time of your heartbeat when you play solo. So that's kind of my favorite setting right now. And I think one that sees me the best, as we speak now, and most of my gigs are solo, the solo album, and Village Mothership. Codebreaker and Village Mothership are both for the label Tao Forms, which was a label that was started by drummer Whit Dickey. He was the drummer on Village Mothership. Village Mothership is a group, it's a co-op CD, even though it's a trio. There's no leader, but that trio used to be my trio and my first two trio albums, Circular Temple and Prism, were that configuration with William Parker and Whit Dickey. Circular Temple got released around 1991. We decided to revisit that group, albeit not under the premise of me being a leader, but a co-op and just see where the language is going since the early nineties.
That album in some ways, if you look at, especially if you look at the cover of it, you'll see a classy photograph of the stage. It's kind of exploring the energy, you know, in the Lower East Side, in the late eighties, early nineties when that trio was playing a lot. It was kind of really great to get back together with those guys as a unit and to see where we are now and that album is where we are now. The duo with William is on a French label, Rogue Art. William and I have had two duo albums in the past. In I think, 1992 or 1993, where we released our first ones though, Zo, which was on punk rock label called Rise Records. When it went out of print, it got picked up on Henry Rollins' label. Then I had a second album with William called DNA that came out in 1999 and that was on Thirsty Ear records. This was our third duo album, again on a French label, Rogue Art. William and I've been playing since I moved to New York in the mid-eighties and we played in many contexts together- sixteen years in the Ware quartet, some of my own collectives. William's like family and he and I can just drop in at any time and continue with a dialogue. That's a very long standing natural and continuous dialogue.
The Ellington album was also done for the label Rogue Art. It is To Duke. At the time, I ended up being asked to do this Ellington tribute in Washington DC, and I did it and it worked out so well, but I decided to make an album from it. So I took my trio at the time, which was myself, Mike Bisio on bass, and Whit Dickey on drums. And we did a bunch of Ellington compositions and some of my compositions that are inspired by Ellington. And that's what we have. It's actually one of my favorite albums of mine. In my opinion, it came out even better than I thought it would. The thing is to take one of your idols, deal in his language but try to put it in your own language. And I feel my personal opinion is that we succeeded in that. So the album has, you know, real elements of an Ellingtontonian kind of language and worldview in it, but yet it's completely falls under our world too.
PSF: What's in the future?
MS: I don't know. It's like the music. I have no idea. I really been contemplating. This might sound weird, but just getting out of it all. I would always play and I would always have maybe some big gigs I would do. But, you know, where are you traveling a lot after being on the road for 38 years. I have tons of albums out and I don't know if I got things I want to keep saying. I have a few more few more things in the can, but, you know, I don't know. Part of me wants to live in a monastery and just pray all the time. Part of me wants to know every time I say 'I want to start doing gigs,' every time I do a gig, I really enjoy the gig. So I'm like, yeah, not every time, but most of the time. And so, you know, I just take it a day at a time.
PSF: Well, that kind of runs us to the end of the questions I had written. I've really enjoyed our conversation. Is there anything else you want to say before I let you go back to real life?
MS: This is real life! I guess I want to say that, you know, my vision is a meditative one, when you asked earlier about the differences with the early me. I think one thing is that I, at a certain point, realized that my gift, or my vision, is a meditative one. There's an introspection in the music that's taken hold that might not have been there earlier, or there might've been hints of it, but it gave way to other stuff. But at the bottom of me is basically a meditative introspective thing. The music is meant to massage the brain cells into a sense of kinetic activity, but complete stillness within the kinetic activity. So that dichotomy is always running through everything now. That T.S. Elliot line in "Four Quartets": "At the still point of a turning world." That is where everything rests with me now. There's times when the music is very kinetic, very, very energetic, very dense, but it always is generated out of utter and complete stillness. And that's the realm I'm trying to occupy right now.
Also see our 1999 interview with Matthew Shipp
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