Interview by Dave Reitzes (May 1999)
If this decade isn't looked back upon as the Roaring Nineties, it won't be Matthew Shipp's fault. For all the heart-stopping architectonics of Shipp's music, however, its solid melodic foundation guarantees that the pianist's impact will be felt long after the 20th century is history.
The past decade has seen Shipp sculpt a body of work that includes his continuing and highly rewarding contributions to the David S. Ware Quartet, a stint with Roscoe Mitchell's Note Factory, and over thirty albums in an impressive variety of solo, duo, trio and quartet formats, with such collaborators as guitarist Joe Morris, saxophonists Roy Campbell and Rob Brown, trumpeter Roy Campbell, bassist William Parker, violinist Matt Maneri, and drummers Whit Dickey and Susie Ibarra.
His latest album, DNA (on Thirsty Ear), is Shipp's fifteenth album as a leader. A duo recording with William Parker, DNA is full of introspective and abstract soundscapes with roots in Monk and Powell, and branches reaching out to American traditional music and spirituals, as in an impassioned version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" and the eloquent, straightforward reading of "Amazing Grace" that brings the album to a close.
We had a chance to talk to Matt just as he was getting ready for the Ware Quartet's first performance with new drummer Guillermo Brown, opening for Sonic Youth at New York City's Roseland.
PSF: I don't know where to start, so why not start with the here and now? You're not recording for a while.
Yeah, I'm doing this duo album with William on Thirsty Ear, then I'm going on a sabbatical from recording, the recording process. But I do have some imports that have already been recorded, that'll be straggling into the country over the next couple years on hatArt. But I have a lot of albums out and it's time to take a rest.
PSF: Do you know how long that's going to last? Is it just going to be when you feel like it?
Right. You know, actually, to be quite honest, DNA, which is the duo album we have on Thirsty Ear, is number fifteen of my own albums --
PSF: As a leader.
Right, and that's in a very short period of time, in a seven-year period. And to me it's kind of capping off the primary body of work. So I'm not really feeling the urge to record at (laughs) to be honest.
PSF: The line between your work as a leader and a sideman kind of blurs sometimes. I think you're somebody who probably, consciously, doesn't stay off to the side too much.
Well, pretty much everything I do, except for Roscoe Mitchell, I kind of cross the line into a collaborator. My own things I'm definitely the leader. With David Ware I'm co-orchestrator (laughs). I've developed a role for myself in that group. I mean, he's the leader but I'm definitely organically a huge part of the whole concept of the quartet. So I think I kind of cross the line. I'm not strictly a sideman; I'm a co -- (shrugs) You could choose to see it many ways.
PSF: Well, it shows. I was listening to Go See the World [David S. Ware Quartet] today and I was thinking that it's hard to imagine the Quartet with a different piano player.
Yeah, I think I've a developed a role for my particular style in that group. We think of it as a piece. There's nobody else who would fit in that role exactly. And that's a bit of an organic marriage between his style as a composer and my actual style as a pianist, accompanist, musical thinker, musical landscape developer, there's a natural organic marriage between David and myself. And then if you look at the rhythm section, there's an organic marriage between William Parker and myself. Therefore that group has grown over the years to be like an organic totality that all our personalities contribute to largely.
PSF: You had Whit Dickey for a while, then you had Susie [Ibarra] for a little while and now this new guy, Guillermo . . .
PSF: He's only been with you, I'm guessing, about a month or so? Two months?
Ah, no -- two days.
PSF: Oh! Well.
(Laughs) We've rehearsed the last two days.
PSF: How's that working out so far?
He's a very good drummer. He's different. He's young; he's 22. Therefore, without a lot of baggage. (Grins) He's definitely going to work.
PSF: What does that do when you have a different player -- player in the sense of a team. What happens when that fourth corner changes?
Well, I would say in that particular group, the sonic landscape, the concept of the rhythm section in that group is one that has been developed over a decade, and it's pretty solid. The actual landscape is generated from myself and William, so the drummer is an added appendage. I mean, a lot of people think of drummers as the foundation of the rhythm section. I would actually say in this group that's not the case. Even though David feeds off a drummer. But the actual sonic landscape is generated by William and myself, so a drummer more or less has to fit into that, because that's already a developed concept. Usually a drummer's style does kind of dictate how we interact with him, but the basic concept of the rhythm section is already established. Elvin Jones could come into the group and he would have to adjust to us.
PSF: Well, number one, you and David and William all have strong personalities as musicians . . .
In and of ourselves.
PSF: Right. And then you put the three of you together, and it's like -- it's one times two times three . . .
Right, it's multiplying, not adding (laughs).
PSF: So you'd have to be a dynamo drummer just to stay afloat. I don't mean just in terms of sheer power; you'd have to be pretty quick mentally and pretty flexible to fit in. And then a little power doesn't hurt, too.
He definitely -- he has it. He brings something different. All the drummers that have been with the Ware group have added something very good to the group, from Mark Edwards to Whit Dickey to Susie Ibarra. He has something different and it should be interesting to see how it grows. I can't predict exactly where it's going to go.
PSF: You're someone whose music is not easy to describe. In terms of nailing it, saying, "Here's what it is," I have more trouble with yours (laughs) than anyone else's. Critics seem to describe your music as being about challenge or about struggle. How do you feel about that?
About what? (Laughs)
PSF: About having people either shrugging, going, "I don't know what it is," or else describing it in terms that are sort of antagonistic. Does that strike you as an insult?
No, because I think somebody's trying to do the best they can to describe it. I like people not being able to be pigeon-holed. I feel I bring a lot to the table as far as what I've been influenced by and what I like. I'm obviously in the jazz avant-garde idiom and one thing that's always struck me about the genius of that idiom is that it can kind of encompass everything, theoretically. If you listen to Albert Ayler, you hear folk songs, you hear elements of traditional jazz on some of his earlier albums, you hear folk melodies, you hear spirituals. If you listen to Coltrane you'll hear Indian music, African music, along with his obvious underpinnings in jazz. If you listen to Cecil Taylor you'll hear some classical things. So the genius of this idiom is that you can bring anything into it. I mean, that's any music, really, when you get down to it. If you listen to Stevie Wonder, he brings elements of Latin music, he performs Bob Dylan songs. But the jazz avant-garde seems like you can incorporate anything into it, like a melting pot, within your own style. I personally have grown up listening to a lot of different things and have been influenced by a lot of different things. I approach the music as music, not as the various genres. So I'm not trying to make a music that's a mixture of this or that, but a lot of this or that is in it.
PSF: It just comes out.
Naturally. So that elements of the different things that are part of me are synthesizing naturally. Therefore, for some people it might be harder to pigeonhole. I mean, when you get down to it, I obviously come out of a certain thing. I definitely come out of the jazz avant-garde tradition and therefore the jazz piano tradition, but there's a lot of things going on that really meant a lot to me, be it Bud Powell or Jimi Hendrix, Anton Webern, Andrew Hill. So there's a lot of people I like and I've just soaked it all in.
PSF: Sometimes you'll play something where maybe more jazz will come out -- well, it's wrong to even say that, but you know what I mean -- some kind of a jazz style comes out more in one piece where maybe in another piece you hear more of a classical influence. You must be sick of being compared to Cecil Taylor.
PSF: And I wouldn't compare the two of you.
I don't think I sound anything like him. But I understand that, because if you mention that idiom, you almost have to mention that.
PSF: Right, just in terms of you being two avant-garde jazz piano players. The average jazz listener who's not too familiar with the avant-garde side of it might hear it that way.
Some people listen very superficially. They get out of it that there's a lot of density and dissonance. If they get that, then they say, you know, you're out of Cecil Taylor.
PSF: Yes, you're coming out of some of the same traditions, but clearly --
A different vector.
PSF: I don't know why I feel I'm on more solid ground when I listen to Cecil.
If you want to describe me as a turn of the century American pianist, I play turn of the century American piano music. (Laughs)
PSF: And I'm not somebody who worries about genre; I just can't think of another person whose music uproots me the way yours does. You know that old quote from Andre Previn, where he says, Stan Kenton makes a big motion, his band plays something, and every arranger in the house nods their head and says, "Yes, that's how it's done." But then Duke Ellington raises a finger, two horns play something, and Previn says, "I don't know what it is."
PSF: There's all this other stuff where I feel I'm on solid ground, but then with you --
It's a mystery.
PSF: Even with your music with Ware, I feel I'm on more familiar territory than your solo work. Do you feel there's a big leap between your music and the music you play with him?
Oh, it's different worlds.
PSF: Because I feel that way.
No, they're two different worlds altogether. In my relating to him, it's creating a different universe than when I put my own name as a leader on it, definitely. They're two different universes with different logics. Purposely so.
PSF: Though, obviously, it's not something where you sit and you think about, "I'm going to do it this way."
No, but I think a burly horn that is that capacious makes the musical landscape a certain thing. And even within the context of the quartet, when he stops playing and the trio is doing something, what you're doing as a trio has to index what he had done before. So it's different when you start with a whole different premise, without that burly tenor, it's a whole different premise. The way he writes is different. The way I accompany him is different. The way I use a horn or a violin in the context of my own group is completely different -- the aims and the means. But related.
PSF: As the writer or the so-called journalist, it's my job to characterize what the difference is, but I'm going to ask you what you think the difference is.
It's hard for me to precisely define those things, but I would say that his group is music coming out of the tenor tradition. There's that definite post-Sonny Rollins, post-Albert Ayler, post-Coltrane thing. And it's a quartet, coming out of a classic quartet concept. Whereas, I think I'm much more concerned with . . . how can I put this? (Laughs) I'm just coming from a different space. I'm a different generation. I'm trying to think of the exact term to say where I'm coming from, and it's not really . . .
PSF: It's almost like doing psychotherapy on yourself to try to figure it out.
Yeah, but I'm good at that. (Laughs)
PSF: Good. (Laughs)
The term is still not coming to me. I mean, he's from a jazz generation. I'm a jazz musician, but the way I think about putting albums out or the way I think about myself as an artist even is more comparable to David Bowie than Sonny Rollins. Post-modern is not the word; in fact, it's definitely not the word. I can't really think of a term. I guess what it comes down to is, my music is different: the way I write, the way I compose, the way I deal with dynamics, the way I organize the other players in my group is just different.
PSF: There's a different sense of structure, but (laughs) don't ask me to describe it.
Well, I think what that comes down to is in his groups, the basic emphasis is accompaniment for him. It's a quartet in that sense, where even though there's a lot of detail going on in the rhythm section that has its own interest, on another level it is more accompaniment -- on another level -- and he's the leader. And I kind of de-emphasize that in my own groups, unless it's a solo or a duo. I orchestrate differently. And I don't mean this as a put-down, but on my album Strata (hatArt), I really try to do the piano as a coloristic device in an Ellingtonian sense, and in his groups I don't think he would take a back job like that. I don't mean that in a pejorative sense, I'm just saying that one group is organized along the lines of that type of classic jazz quartet and the other is organized along the lines of a portrait or a novel.
PSF: With Strata, you give them [the horns] a lot of space on that.
Right. Which makes the album what it is.
PSF: My initial reaction to that album was that, even though we've been hearing your compositions all along, it gives me a way to hear them more, when I can separate the composition from the player. Do people ask you a lot, when you're done a performance, how much of it was written?
Yeah, there's all kinds of questions and there's all kinds of answers to that.
PSF: Occasionally that question arises, if you haven't heard someone play the same piece a couple times. I'll give you one example, in fact, the first time I can think of when that question occurred to me [with your music] was when I was listening to the album with Joe Morris [Matthew Shipp Duo with Joe Morris, Thesis (hatArt)], the piece called "The Middle Region," where there's this very intricate interplay.
I'm trying to remember which one that is. Is that number eleven?
PSF: Maybe ten?
Is that a very African one, where we're both playing . . .
See Part 2 of 4 of our Matthew Shipp interview
Also see our 2022 interview with Matthew Shipp
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