In concert at Creative Alliance this weekend: three jazz pianists who push their limits
By By Bret McCabe
Oct 09, 2015 | 3:44 PM
The angular, off-pace piano line that opens 'The Conduct of Jazz,' the title track of New York-based pianist Matthew Shipp's new album, out Oct. 23 from Thirsty Ear, initially feels like an updated Monkian blues vamp, with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker putting a shaking pulse behind the chords. After about 30 seconds this groove wave crashes into a hip-shaking melody, feeling like a traditional jazz number—until it suddenly doesn't. Shipp throws in clusters of notes delivered at a sprinter's pace. Bisio and Taylor Baker chop up the rhythm like DJs mixing breakbeats.
All three sound like they're taking turns holding down the song's starting tempo and melodic motif for a few measures here or there, and about halfway through this nearly 8-minute composition, they've created a slightly different beast. Throughout "The Conduct of Jazz" album the music is marked by the trio's soulful intelligence; they're aware of what makes a conventional groove and spike it with the wit and skill to bend that groove into any direction. It's a solid reminder of how contemporary musicians of Shipp's caliber recognize jazz both as a conservative art form built on more than a century's worth of traditions and as a subversive strategy to hear the sounds that surround it and interact with them.
Shipp is one of the artists local promoter Bernard Lyons' Creative Differences jazz series brings to town this weekend as part of the New Editions in Piano concerts at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson. All three—Marilyn Crispell, Lafayette Gilchrist, and Shipp—are artists who pair a deep reservoir of experience with seasoned restlessness to push their limits.
Though Crispell spent many years in in the 1980s and 1990s in free-jazz ensembles led by Anthony Braxton and Reggie Workman, her vocabulary, as performer and composer, is as agile with contemporary classical music as it is with jazz idioms. That range of interest is heard in her discography over the past 15 years, which is filled with a number of duo, trio, and quartet recordings where she's paired with artists as diverse as percussionist/minimalist composer Andrea Centazzo (such as the haunting 'Stolen Moment #2'), Norwegian trumpeter Gunhild Seim (2012's "Elephant Wings"), and percussionist Gerry Hemingway (their recent "Table of Changes" is worth checking out). Crispell plays in two configurations this weekend—a duo with violinist Tanya Kalmanovitch, a classically trained performer with a mind that impressively complements experimental artists, and a trio with local bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Eric Kennedy.
Local musical polymath Gilchrist should need no introduction, but we don't always get to hear him play solo that much around here. Yes, his solo concert in September at the University of Baltimore was recorded, so we have that to look forward to, but still: To hear him solo in the context of such accomplished players is typically only found at festivals that take place in Europe.
Shipp comes to town in a trio with drummer Jeff Cosgrove and bassist William Parker, the lineup featured on Cosgrove's "Alternating Current" from last year. The trio showed itself to be a powerful, exploratory outfit on this recording, which is anchored by the nearly 40-minute excursion 'Bridges of Tomorrow,' where Cosgrove's drumming is less the music's rudder than one of the three improvising minds embarking on this odyssey. It moves from moments of spatial reflection to dense layers of plucked bass, piano chords, and rolling percussive exclamations. It's very much a drummer's album—the title track is parenthetically dedicated to Andrew Cyrille—which frees Shipp up to explore his more lyrical side. Shipp steps into 'Alternating Current' playing a plaintive line that Parker and Cosgrove complement at first before beginning to pick up the tempo and mood, the song flowering into an almost hard-bop abstraction by its end.
Bud Powell always comes to mind when listening to Shipp for me—not because they have a similar sound at all, but because of Powell's individuality, the way he made your ears suspect every one of his 10 fingers got involved in translating what was in his head into the air. The sometimes-overlooked Elmo Hope comes to mind here, too: Both Hope and Powell were piano bandleaders who favored the conventional jazz trio format as the transformative cocoon for their ideas about music. And neither Hope nor Powell sounded restrained by jazz's supposed confines, as they incorporated harmonic and rhythmic ideas into their playing from whatever captured their ears.
It's tempting to hear Shipp toying with the idea of tradition on "The Conduct of Jazz." The title alone, suggesting that there's an idea of the manner in which a jazz musician should behave, is itself a bit cheeky, and the piano, bass, and drums trio is one of jazz's staples. With that in mind it's possible to detect an awareness of tradition on the album, even if that acknowledgment is simply en route to reinvention or total deconstruction. 'Primary Form' begins with Shipp playing a tight, tumbling piano line that wouldn't feel out of place in the hard-bop 1950s, but accompanying it are Bisio's discombobulating bass and Taylor Baker carving jerking rhythmic patterns that wouldn't feel out of place in a post-rock workout—and eventually both Shipp and Bisio join him in ecstatic improvisation. The affecting 'Stream of Light' is even more sneaky, wherein Shipp's densely layered playing elegantly seems to shift from melody to abstraction without the ear ever catching the line separating the two.
It's important to remember that Shipp moved to New York in the mid-1980s, that decade when major-label jazz pushed the traditional as being "inside" the mainstream market while everything that wasn't was "outside." That corporate move had political as well as aesthetic implications, and artist of Shipp's generation found ways to forge careers in the independent and DIY margins of the so-called industry. And like the many artists who occupy those margins, Shipp's career exposes the lie of there being an inside/outside dichotomy in the music at all. "The Conduct of Jazz" effortlessly shows how the music can be fiery, ornery, combative, difficult, and even hard while never abandoning a sense of swing or its soulful intelligence—that moving the heart and the brain aren't mutually exclusive endeavors.
Jeff Cosgrove, William Parker, and Matthew Shipp play the Creative Alliance Oct. 9.