Prolific Free-Jazz Pianist Matthew Shipp Leaves Recording Behind

Stage? Sure. Studio? No longer, says Shipp.
Stage? Sure. Studio? No longer, says Shipp.
Courtesy of Glen Tollington

Matthew Shipp, the prolific free-jazz pianist, orders a cup of coffee (milk, no sugar) at an unremarkable café on Avenue A, around the corner from where he's lived since forever. The late-December morning is gray, rainy, and melancholy, but Shipp wants to share some news that appears to delight him. He will, he says, stop recording.

Seriously. Piano Song, out January 27, will be his last album, and one of his finest, for Thirsty Ear Recordings, where he's been the anchor artist and curator for the long-running Blue Series. He will then finish "a few things" for ESP-Disk and RogueArt, the French label, "and basically, that's going to be it. I'm going to stop."

Shipp, 56 now, with gray coming in at the temples, is brainy, unusually open, and tirelessly honest — he speaks as freely as he plays, and records nearly as vigorously. "I lost count," he says of his output. "I have no idea." This decade alone, he's put out 24 albums as a leader. Of the recording moratorium, even he admits, "I've been saying that for years and years." He's declared it in the press more than once and in his own self-penned liner notes to 2003's Equilibrium. And yet the albums kept coming.

Their most consistent channel has been the Blue Series, which Shipp started in 1999 with Thirsty Ear owner Peter Gordon. It's flowed and ebbed, fused electronics and hip-hop, and was — and still is, since Shipp will remain as artistic director — "a tent where a number of like-minded artists could support one another and bring to the world a collective engagement," according to Gordon. Those like-minded artists have included DJ Spooky, Antipop Consortium, and Craig Taborn. "It's something we've talked about for a number of years," Gordon says of Shipp's exit from the Blue Series, "and we were trying to find out what would be a great statement, because everyone moves on in everything in life."

Shipp insists he will continue to play live — for the Piano Song release he'll appear at the Cutting Room on February 9 — and he thinks he has another great solo record in him, but beyond that he admits, "I kind of feel that I've said what I wanted to say."

"I believe he's intending that now," says Taborn, who's made two albums for the Blue Series. "In the future, he may decide that there's something he feels like doing and make a record." Taborn, ten years younger than Shipp, has taken the opposite approach from his onetime producer and recorded only six albums as a leader throughout his career.

Shipp, so often labeled a disciple of Cecil Taylor, has always been much more. He has, in a very literal sense, been close to jazz tradition: His mother grew up with Clifford Brown in Wilmington, Delaware; his father knew Lem Winchester, Ramsey Lewis's vibraphonist; Shipp himself studied with Dennis Sandole, an important teacher for John Coltrane; and, when Shipp first moved to the East Village in 1984, he briefly lived in Charlie Parker's old apartment on East 10th Street. His piano work throughout his career, and on Piano Song, suggests Taylor, sure, but also Monk, Tristano, Paul Bley, Lowell Davidson, and, especially on the title track, Andrew Hill. "I align him with a lot of players I really like in a certain iconoclast stream of the rugged individualist," Taborn says. "I place him in the tradition in every way, but he's almost his own branch."

Piano Song is a poetic summation of many of Shipp's predilections, performed with the fierce though not especially trendy drummer Newman Taylor Baker and bassist Michael Bisio. When one of them lays out, the outfit seamlessly contracts to a potent duo, a configuration that has alwas been unloved in jazz (trios and quartets are more popular) but that Shipp has nonetheless revisited and reinvented throughout his career. With liner notes from encyclopedic Brian Morton, quite the get, Piano Song is by turns lyrical, nervy, percussive, ominous, tempestuous, and still.

If Shipp does stop recording and suddenly have more time on his delicate hands, you're more likely to catch him on Columbia Street than at Columbia University, the sort of place where so many mid-career jazz musicians, ignored for so long, are now finding homes. "I don't want to fit in to that world of the Harvards and Yales. I actually have utter disdain for that paradigm, complete, utter disdain," Shipp, the conservatory dropout, says — not angrily, but with a chuckle.

The freezing rain is turning to snow outside on Avenue A. Shipp greets a few people, familiar faces from the neighborhood. He could do well in a run for City Council, but then he'd have to be political. Maybe he'll record again, maybe he won't. But somewhere, he'll be playing. "All I can say is, I continue to do my work....I have no choice. That's what I do. I sit at a piano and I play it."


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