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Crossing Thresholds

A trio of musicians, Matthew Shipp on piano, Rob Brown on alto sax, flute, and clarinet, and Warren Smith on drums, excited the air on a stagnantly humid summer night at the Vermont Jazz Center in Brattleboro, Vermont.

The group played two sets. Although the ornamentation in each was different, particularly with the change in reeds, both manifested serious dedication to the pursuit of resolving musical ideas. The truth simply put is that these three musicians are relentless. Each member moved their own language around, integrating with the other’s vocabulary in a educated fashion towards the time when the waters could rush through the floodgates in a confluent series of audacious gestures that could make streams into rivers and rivers into oceans.

Shipp’s piano playing adamantly enforced all unspoken rules of persistence. He played ten finger chords again and again. His hands never left the keyboard: he pulled at the keys, he hammered the keys, he stroked the keys softly. The shapes of his fingers sometimes resembled those of marching spider legs; at other times they were extended to their full astonishing length. Shipp’s focus never broke, only seemingly, when he reached inside the piano to pluck the strings on the sounding board. His rhythmic sense exhibited fearlessness. He had the capacity to change proficiently rhythms within the whole sound that was being produced. Brown and Smith made the same kind of switches. I suppose I can think about this as multiphonics at its best.

Brown stood center stage first with his alto saxophone. His playing was controlled and within the limits he set for himself. There was no funny business. In the first set, he altered the gist of the flow with the flute and clarinet both of which he played with equal aplomb and assiduousness. His eyes were always closed. His body language never showed changes in temperament; note and phrase surges that he created with his instruments demonstrated the extent of the formality of his statements. His horns sang songs throughout the whole concert; the songs were unbroken and fluid.

Warren Smith, who has a history of playing with numerous music greats, performed on the drums as if they were the extensions of himself. He wore a necklace of whistles, from a siren to a tunable bird whistle. How they reached his mouth I did not see; all of a sudden he would be blowing. His acute awareness of making an impact with repetitive blocks of rhythmic tapping, exemplary on the cowbell, and his ability to balance the way in which he traveled around the drumset over and over again to develop a constancy with the way in which he dispersed that collectiveness was beautiful and effective. It molded a means for the other instruments to weave in and out of the dryness of the snare, the wispiness or crispness of the cymbals or the deep reverberations of the bass drum.

Towards the very end of the last set, I sat mesmerized at the synchronized not necessarily harmonized intersecting patterns constructed by the trio. Shipp’s watch band kept catching the light as if to measure time. Or timelessness. For I had crossed that threshold of anticipating nothing, and sensing everything.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Matthew Shipp, Rob Brown, and Warren Smith
  • Concert Date: 7/20/2002
  • Venue: Vermont Jazz Center
  • City State Country: Brattleboro, VT
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