Take the A train rumbling through Matthew Shipp’s piano: repeated fistfuls of Johnny Staccato chords, gunmetal black-and-white flesh tones, Weegee-board edges jutting out at ramrod left angles, no 52nd Street exit in sight but out the window maybe a ruminative Siberian death march or two through “Summertime” or “Autumn Leaves,” grand 19th-century storm clusters crashing into 20th-century seawalls of silence, systematic fingers besieging sleek architecture like carpenter ants on a wood binge. Let’s call this Money Jungle Music—full of static runs, urbane claustrophobia, and weird repose, issuing from an all-night lounge where the ivory tinkler makes the distance between Erroll Garner and Cecil Taylor seem as short as the fuse on the man who keeps requesting melancholy-baby selections from the Anatomy of a Murder soundtrack.
Shipp’s tightly wound jazz is abstract the same way any good late-Fuller/early-Godard gangster-reporter-director comes across as the distillation of uncounted tough-guy postures, profiles, gimmicks: a walking, ticking confrontation between melodrama and incredulity. Tersely didactic, his brand-spanking Nu Bop goes for a shock-corridor effect that condenses jazz vamping as monomaniacally as the first Ramones album stripped the British Invasion down to barest obsessive essentials. Nu Bop‘s subway-tunnel clattershot is achieved without recourse to guitars, machine-gun horns, or a massive attack of synthesized beats’n’loops. The electronic treatments dabbed on by Shipp’s co-producer-programmer Chris Flam amount to a light impasto of computer-generated landscaping and a touch of subliminal cosmic slop, no more pronounced or obtrusive than the pianist’s deep fondness for his sustain pedal. “Space Shipp” and “Rocket Shipp”—the same riff/rhythm/conception given the once-over twice—mostly arrive at their power-trio force by acoustic means: hyperpercussive keystrokes, William Parker’s hard-nosed monster bass, Guillermo E. Brown’s harshly syncopated, chain-gang-on-parade drum routines. Elsewhere there are short injections of Daniel Carter’s sax and flute, which (except for a dream-interlude duet with Parker on “X-Ray”) only pour a little localized color/anesthetic into the mix. Everything here is dedicated to getting the texture of things just so—and binding it to a clanging pulse that isn’t techtronica-derived so much as techtronica-friendly: a sonic palette folks raised on the Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin, and Fatboy Slim can dig without compromising Shipp’s native-son audacity.
Nu Bop‘s intent is to reclaim a place for jazz in the hipster underground, plugging into some motherboard of Cool that would serve as the ne-plus-ultra-modern equivalent of the moment circa 1947 or so when Bud Powell and Raw Deal film noir and the pre-beatniks and post-cubists were all loosely fellow travelers on the road to a darker, destabilized tomorrow. If the album nonetheless feels boxed-in, that’s because there is no comparably New-ish Wave to hook up with these days—it’s every artist for him- or herself, and let history bury its own friggin’ dead. Once “Select Mode 1” and “Select Mode 2” rework the main theme for the third and fourth time around on a disc that clocks in under 40 minutes, the shortest attention spans have had the whole repetition-compulsion drill driven home, to the point where Nu Bop starts to feel less like a slam-gambit of an album and more an extended single featuring multiple versions interspersed with a batch of crafty, throwaway B-side miniatures. (Even the Ramones were able to vary a one-note thesis with more subtlety.) In all fairness, Cecil and Ornette have spent the last 30-odd years recapitulating the same adorable pet licks ad infinitum, so if Shipp wants to dance on your head with one of his own, it’s hard to begrudge the guy. And maybe tossing us a brilliantly warped demolition-cum-renovation of a standard would be just too easy, old-fashioned: on this air raid, no prisoners, no interrogations.
Shipp has been David S. Ware’s right-hand man in the tenor saxophonist’s indomitable quartet for more than a decade, fastidiously gathering intelligence on free-jazz purism and classicism. Last year Ware’s Corridors & Parallels (Aum Fidelity), with Shipp moving to synthesizer, laid a fair amount of Nu Bop‘s tonal groundwork. But for all those gamelan-orchestral, atomic organ-grinder squiggles and bits, the ever combustible Ware’s avant-romantic flights placed the album squarely on the doorstep of Throwback City: abounding echoes of Coltrane going agape-crazy or Gato Barbieri completely communing with the cries of sweaty wide-screen lovers. Ware’s furiously rhapsodic elegy—nostalgia for a golden age that never came—has an open-ended beauty while Shipp’s futurism-is-now project goes for a microscopically calibrated functionality. His music’s clean lines and rigorous designs suggest something of a good Bauhaus-keeping aesthetic: sturdy and/or delicate pieces of finely tapered furniture, indicated by past prescriptive titles like “Algebraic Boogie,” “Syntax,” “Inner Order,” “Self-Regulated Motion,” and 14 separate layers of “Strata.”
Few, however, manage to put their ideas into practice the way Shipp, as artistic director of Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, has been able to stamp the label’s jazz arm with his own sensibility. The releases he’s produced or shepherded there since launching the series in 2000 have carved a niche for themselves as instantly recognizable as ’60s Blue Note or ’70s ECM. (In fact, it amounts to a rapprochement between Afro-modern and Nordic chamber modes.) He’s even collaborated on the ingenious calligraphic-geometric cover-art graphics that set apart the Blue Series—no artist photos or liner notes, a minimum of credits, a flat, handsome laser-printout look that packs all the identifying details of a highbrow bar code. In marked contrast to the old free-school approach of Aum Fidelity, where along with Shipp many of the Thirsty Ear crew (William Parker, Roy Campbell, Matt Maneri) cut their teeth, an almost military discipline predominates. The twin poles of Shipp’s quartet releases, the relatively straight-ahead Pastoral Composure (with trumpeter Campbell) and the more abstruse New Orbit (Waddada Leo Smith doing valve honors), are models of shrewd, efficient introspection. But shying away from sprawling, emotive gesticulation makes Campbell’s It’s Krunch Time feel slightly attenuated, dampened—like cramming Kevin Garnett into a compact car. Craig Taborn’s Light Made Lighter is too beholden to Shipp’s schematic approach, but that seems to work fine as sweetener on the Webern-baby-burn violinist Maneri, whose Blue Decco sounds about as close to carefree as brooding gets. Tim Berne’s The Shell Game departs from the formula to make its own prog-rock/art-funk gravy, consisting of drawn-out saxophonic crop circles, quaint-as-a-ring-modulator electric piano, and plate-scraping continental drift. Wild card of the bunch has got to be Spring Heel Jack’s oddball collaboration Masses: Instead of the expected dance-mix samplings culled from your favorite Thirsty Ear releases, this is a hardcore dose of atonal impressionism featuring a lineup of Squeak-King All-Stars.
Funnily enough, it’s Aum Fidelity that has jumped into the remix-crossover scene with Black Cherry by Organic Grooves, an engaging rewiring of a William Parker/Hamid Drake bass/drum Piercing the Veil as ambient techno (be-blip?). But dance beats or not, it looks like Shipp’s Nu Bop signals a new round in the great snipe hunt for that creature called fusion: Already in the Thirsty Ear pipeline is a Guillermo Brown groove-thing called Soul at the Hands of the Machine, which strives mightily to update electrified Miles for the Rave Age. And further down the road (and off the beaten track), there is the William Parker Quartet’s amazing, goofy-sublime Raining on the Moon: a different kind of symbiosis with singer Leena Conquest, going back to the future in search of a missing jazz link to the soul-poetry of Van Morrison. Like Laura Bush said recently about Dostoyevsky’s novels: “All one summer when I was a schoolteacher in Houston, I read ’em around the swimming pool, so even though they’re set in very cold Russia, they have this sort of bio-humidity about them that I remember.”