Matt's Metaphysics

In 1998, Matthew Shipp played the piano in a performance with Other Dimensions in Music in Amherst, Massachusetts. This was the first avant-garde music concert I had ever attended and the first about which I would attempt to write and successfully did.

Matthew’s music was familiar to me by way of the radio. Any prior awareness of him resulted from his name being in the air, so to speak. This is the same kind of familiarity I had had with William Parker; I had carried his name with me for nearly 25 years. Seeing him perform was like being in a dream come true. And so it was in regards to Matthew.

It was not long before I began to purchase Matthew’s recordings, some of which I wrote about, beginning with DNA, which CD he recorded with William, by the way on Thirsty Ear Records. Not really paying attention to the label, the next Thirsty Ear record of Matthew’s I acquired was NU-BOP. The sound of NU-BOP sent me reeling. I must have played it 100 times. It never tired me. Matthew had stepped into the electronics arena. At that point, I thought that that he might have been doing this to reach a wider audience for improvised music. I was actually sort of right as I found out later.

I had a chance to see Matthew perform again in Vermont in an intimate space where it was easy to introduce myself to the musicians. I wanted to ask Matt to autograph one of his recordings for me which he did before the concert. That in itself was exciting. It seemed that Matt knew who I was I guessed because he had seen articles that I had written about his performances and his recordings. Little did I know that at the break between sets, he would sit down next to me and have a conversation. In answer to some fairly general questions, he described his background a little, told me a couple of stories about the development of his music and I talked about my writing. The conclusion of the 20 minute exchange ended up with his complying with my request for Thirsty Ear send me review copies of some records. It had not been a week before Thirsty Ear began to send me review copies for the Blue Series. AMASSED by Spring Heel Jack was the first Blue Series CD I received. It was the first one I wrote about. And the CDs kept on coming... and I kept on writing.

The seriousness of, dedication to and coherence in the music that these recordings continually demonstrated incited my dropping a line to the contact at Thirsty Ear to say that I thought that this group of records was one of the most outstanding series I had ever heard. They affected me like a series of art works and in the back of my mind, the idea of a record "series" intrigued me.

Somewhere I read that Matthew Shipp curated the Blue series: that means he had everything to do with the selection of the artists who recorded each album. Matthew had donned another hat. A musician picking other musicians to record. It was as if he were selecting art works to hang in an endless exhibit. It was time to be official about asking to interview Matthew. Permission for a phone interview was granted. I talked with him on a Sunday. I was nervous.

According to Matthew, the Blue Series simply started in 1999 or 2000 with Matthew’s solo acoustic piano recording, PASTORAL COMPOSURE. Since that time, when no agenda was mapped out for what would become the series, the series has changed and in essence has assumed a solidity which in the process of development has given it purpose: " to put a fresh face on improvisation", one that would suit the 21st century. Matthew analogizes the Blue Series venture to that of Manfred Eicher in the founding in 1969 of ECM records whose purpose was to emphasize, in the act of recording, the elegance of jazz, as if it were classical music. Matthew sees the focus of the Blue Series as the re-defining of the musical "logic" arising from the jazz recordings of the 90’s especially those made by the musicians who have been recorded in the Blue Series. All of the musicians invited to record have been lifted out of their normal arenas to contribute to the shaping of "forward - looking vocabularies" that do not have the past as a substance. Matthew wants the series to contain music which explores and stresses the "compositional elements" of improvisation. This is an oxymoron; but if you know the series, you know that tightness is its signature.

Within the series, there is a stark inclusion of electronics, one that I noticed when I first listened to NU-BOP. When asked about this electronic influx, Matthew replied that one reason that the group, Spring Heel Jack, was chosen to record was to invest the series with the intermingling of jazz and electronics. This choice turned the tide of the series: the focus became one where an improvised music that is "lyrical "& yet "relevant" slashed through to cut the edge into the 21st century.

Matthew does not think that the Series is close-minded, rather just the opposite-- that it is open-ended and that he as curator will always be open to the changes in the environment both living and musical. He already believes that the recordings have mutated to accommodate changes in the musical environment: he cites hip-hop music as helping to "construct the modern landscape" from which the Blue Series can derive material. The Blue Series is intended to "transcend musical genres", to move away from cultural backdrops and make its own cycloramas. Matthew advocates the series as a "melting pot" for distilling all "colors and genres" into their essences, whereby each recording and the recordings collectively substantiate "a personality that has that, I mean", he said, " spirit." Sure, history is involved in the making of the music and it does not matter that it can be traced: the series is "comprehensive" for that very reason. The musicians come from all cultures on purpose.

All that matters is the "energy" that comes out of the music.

Matthew in his own right is a comprehensive guy. Matthew has always considered himself an abstract expressionist. He identifies with the way in which paint is "thrust" onto a canvas, using as exemplary painters, the quintessential abstract expressionists, Pollock and Rothko. Matthew sees painting as both a lyrical and kinetic gesture toward the making of literal "mine fields of information" where "harmony and colors vibrate". Improvised music can also offer an opportunity for the listener to "delve into the same kind of energy field". (Matthew saying this leads me to thinking that it is not a wonder that Matthew plays the way he does: ten-fingered chords, hard and hammered---- even his fingering of phrases and trills project singular thrusts.) Matthew notes also that improvised music is subject to numerous interpretations: you can either "get it or "not get it". What is important is that the door to interpretation is open. Matthew thinks of himself as "functioning as an artist" to construct that door. As the individual artist, Matthew wants to present "creative logics or abstractions that pave avenues into the music, to take painterly approaches to paint pictures of infinity" which become the products, i.e. the recordings. Matthew claims that "he does not exist" in these products. He lets the products go.

All that matters is the "energy" that comes out of the music.

The Blue Series is comprised of music that has great intellect. Matthew has cultivated a group of "like-minded" musicians: musicians who have recorded for a long time in different contexts. And Matthew sees that these musicians have become so entrenched with the positive nature of the idea that has become the Blue Series that they have used the recordings within the series as "points of reference". They have used the recordings as teachers, as means to expand their own language, to stretch their own voices, to re-invent themselves. "Theoretically", Matthew says, " this series could go on forever..." What will happen is that as the series continues, as new musicians are included, as larger steps outside of what exists are taken, the series will be re-invigorated. Pictures of infinity will be painted.

All that matters will be the "energy" that comes out of the music.

When I asked Matthew why the series is assigned a color description of "blue", he answered, "No reason." I made the remark, "Well, blue usually denotes a calmness." His reply was, "We need calm". For someone who does not mind contradicting himself, with these three words, he contradicted himself without knowing it. Although I am sure that he was referring to the calm we need in the world of unrest in which we exist now, April, 2003, I read his response as more specifically referring to the calm that paradoxically swaddles the listener in heavy, pulsating, enlivening, heart-grabbing, gripping music that is the Blue Series, itself, as well as the Blue Series Continuum to come.

All that matters is the "energy" that comes out of the music.

Thank you, Matt. Thank you.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Matthew Shipp
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