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Matthew Shipp and William Parker at the Horse

On February 9 at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Ma., the stage was occupied by two top performers in the avant garde idiom of jazz-Matthew Shipp, on piano, and William Parker, on bass. Shipp met Parker 15 years ago and expressed a desire to play with him. Shipp's desire was fulfilled and they have played together numerous times in various group situations ever since. Despite the difference in their age, Shipp commands his instrument with finesse and sophistication that begins to match Parker's maturity and grace with his own instrument. Their duo performance precedes the release of their second duo CD, on May 4 of this year, entitled DNA.

The first set of the evening began with the two musicians mounting the stage in an unorthodox manner, from the front instead of the side. But, then, a hush came over the small audience as the men took their places. Parker picked up his bass, stroked the bow with resin, and readied himself to begin. His head was downcast, his eyes were closed, his unusually exposed bare head reflected the red spotlight that bathed the stage with warmth. Shipp sat at the piano, raised his hands to the keyboard and started to play.

The music was fluid and fantastic. Parker's steady accompaniment was almost motorized. Then, the music changed. Shipp went into a heavy two-handed chord direction that was extremely rhythmic; Parker complimented with drum-bowing by slapping the neck of the bow between plucking at the strings. They both propelled themselves into their own musical worlds. These worlds existed coherently. They played in parallel. Each knew how the other was sounding. Each was his own vector, as Shipp has described it, culminating, in an Ives-like transition, in the melody, WHEN JOHNNY COMES MARCHING HOME. The intensity of the performance was relieved in a way for both the performers and the audience as this tune rang out. This melody was the first mountain peak the two players would reach. Parker went from plucking above the fretted neck of the bass to reaching with one finger below the bridge, the entire length of his arm. Shipp pounded out on the keyboard in unison. Parker picked out the melody himself with one finger. The two drifted apart again. The vibrations they created penetrated the audience, furniture and all.

The piano became quiet, then silent. Shipp listened to Parker solo. Parker exhibited not one bit of stress in his face. His focus was totally to produce the music. He can turn his instrument into many by what he does with it. Splitting the strings, he stretches them to shorten them so he can bow at a higher pitch, like that of a violin. He can bow at a speed that makes a sound that has no distinct notes, while the other hand moves up and down the neck of the bass with equal fluidity. Sound and movement are indistinguishable.

When the two reconvened, Shipp echoed the notes of the bass in the treble end of the piano. Deep chords followed, to crescendo into a rumble; Parker's fingers returned to the strings. A rhythm came through. Parker picked up the bow again; the power of the sound mounted as the notes became higher. The piano imitated the bass. At the point when Parker snapped a string as he bowed, I was riveted to the music. I could not look away. I could not stop feeling.

Coming out of the first melody was just as intense as going into it. The experience was similar to looking at an abstract painting when suddenly a recognizble image pops out and then disappears again. Just as I realized this, I heard Ellington's TAKE THE A TRAIN. Again, it was relieving to identify this theme. But Shipp did not rest. He pounded his fists on the bass notes of the piano. Parker arrested the rhythm in his supremely conscious way. The tune wound in and out of improvised variations; the tune returned in short and long versions. This twin-peaked piece of music had been composed. The cadence shut down. The applause took over.

After a brief intermission, Shipp and Parker were back on stage to perform a version of AUTUMN LEAVES. This tune is not unfamiliar to Shipp fans: he has recorded it with Susie Ibarra on drums. But this time, the standard was, of course, rendered differently. Shipp reached into the piano to pluck his own set of strings to establish a slow pulse. Parker imitated the pitch on the bass by plucking near the tuning knobs. Each repeated the pulse; each created the pace. Often, the two played in sync. Every time, I see William, he does something new: this time, it was bowing with his left hand while he plucked with his right; this time, it was tickling the strings as he bowed to create a sound similar to that of a music box.

Matthew soloed in this set. Matthew just plays. He feathers the keys with his long fingers. He constructs his improvisation as a composer chooses his notes when writing a piece. Only for Matthew, the notes he chooses are not trials; they are THE notes. From a chord, he goes to a single note, there. He goes there. He recollects. He goes there. He recollects. He goes THERE. He stays. He stays. He stays. The notes are many, the notes are few. They are assembled in bass chords. They are attacked in the upper register, repeatedly, or singly. Their coherence is solid.

Parker nodded an ostensible beat at the point where he knew it was time to reenter as Shipp pounded some chords, keeping his hands in the same position for quite awhile, making only slight shifts within the chords he repeated. Parker drummed the neck of the bass. There was a sidestep into a slow mode. Parker began to show his sweat as his hands moved all over his instrument; his right hand fluttered, unifying the notes he vibrated. Shipp's hands fluttered from an intense treble single note back to an intense low note cluster. The bass imitated the piano. The piano imitated the bass. A soft non-dissonant chord progression on the piano paralleled a mellow to high pitch bowing on the bass. The last autumn leaves were coming to the ground to settle. The piano stopped on one note. The bow stopped on one note. The resonance remained.

This kind of jazz never fails to touch my inner being. As Shipp has said, this kind of jazz has never been heard before. It did not evolve logically. And I would add that it has evolved as a result of the capacity of the musicians who play it to realize the quality of their musical ideas.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Matthew Shipp and William Parker
  • Venue: Iron Horse
  • City State Country: Northampton, M.A,
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