If people are open-minded, we tend to assume they won’t strongly defend their beliefs. Matthew Shipp is not one of those people.
The free jazz pianist has worked with artists as diverse as DJ Spooky and the hip hop group Anti-Pop Consortium, helping to create a bridge between a music with the absolute least commercial potential and those who work in more popular forms. But this explorative spirit is not always the first thing people want to talk about regarding Shipp.
He’s taken heat for his derogatory remarks about the recent output of people like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, which he believes obscures the more adventurous work of younger performers. He’s gotten in a fight with author and jazz critic Stanley Crouch, which was supposedly broken up by Ravi Coltrane. And he’s not especially apologetic about any of it.
“I don’t hold the jazz tradition in the respect that (some do)” he said in a JazzTimes interview. “On one level I do — I mean, it’s the tradition. On another level, fuck all of them. I’ve got to say what I need to say to market myself the way I need to market myself. People have to realize that being a jazz musician is very frustrating. This historical thing is so heavy it’s distressing sometimes. You just want to relax and be in the moment.”
With an output of over 50 albums as a leader or collaborator, Shipp could easily let his inventive music speak for itself. Instead, he feels he has to fight for every ounce of respect he receives. He admires other musicians, but claims no influences. Few artists are as dedicated to their independence as Shipp. You might say Shipp is, well, uncompromisingly open-minded.
What did you take away from your years playing with David S. Ware, and do you think you’ll ever play in that large of a group again?
David has a very specific concept and a way to organize his music — no, I will never play again in a configuration like that, but seeing his methodology was enlightening even though it is different than mine. I learned a lot about how to combine different motivitic things and how someone from his generation deals with organizing meaning in free jazz.
You’ve also recorded with people as diverse as El-P and DJ Spooky — is there any benefit at all in having a definition of jazz, a concept for it?
There is no definition for jazz, jazz is a four-letter word, it’s about adapting to whatever is in front of you and building life-affirming meaning with whatever, whether it’s David S. Ware or El-P.
Your version of “Take the A Train” is funny and dark at the same time, at least to my ears. How do you keep your music connected to emotion, keep it from getting too heady?
I let it be what it is, and however it comes through, whether dark or funny, it is what it is. You can try this or that but the tape recorder does not lie, so you’re left with the essence of whatever the emotion is and how that ties in to your vision, concept and technical ability to pull it off.
Music is at our disposal everywhere now, in ringtones, pop-up ads, as background for web pages — when will we hear a Matthew Shipp track in a Cheetos commercial?
When you or someone you know hires me to license my music for that.
As someone with a highly accomplished body of work now, do you feel the reverence for the past in jazz sometimes gets in the way of it having a future?
Yes, that is jazz’s problem. I mean, there is only one spacious present in the universe. Time does not really exist in an ultimate way, so be in the present and play the universe through your instrument. The universe is always in the present — it does not bow down to universes in the past.
The Matthew Shipp Trio performs two shows tonight, July 15, at 7 and 9 p.m. at Dazzle Jazz.
Denver-based writer Sam DeLeo is a published poet, has seen two of his plays produced and is currently finishing his second novel.