Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Shipp Piano Trio and the New Synthesis

In the many musical niches active out in the world at this very moment, the idea of an absolute purity of style has seemed to have passed. At the time of "high modernism," especially in the '50s and for the most part of the '60s, a particular artist often was expected to develop a distinct style and stick to it. If they didn't, critics were quick to call them to task. When Albert Ayler flirted with the fringes of rock, Ornette Coleman involved himself with contemporary concert music, Miles added rock and funk to his arsenal, there were those who were uncomfortable with it. When fusion came along, many disapproved, although some of the commercial excesses of that style as practiced by a few artists also helped kill it off for a time. A kind of genre fascism came into play. Neotrad practice was as much a "thou shalt not" (play anything that smacks of rock or outness) as a "thou shalt" thing.

I perhaps oversimplify. I do believe that we see today a returning freedom to dabble in various stylistic combinations without penalty. So we turn to a recent album by Matthew Shipp, Harmonic Disorder (Thirsty Ear), and find a kind of synthesis there.

Mr. Shipp is an avant pianist with a pretty long resume of recordings and associations. He is surely one of the more important and interesting pianists active right now. He is joined on this new CD by bassist Joe Morris and drummer Walt Dickey. Both contribute much to the success of the recording.

It's that synthesis that I'd like to bring in focus for a moment. Matthew and company have their moments of out freedom, as one would expect, and it's all done very well. They also, for example, quote freely from the Bill Evans' version of "Someday My Prince Will Come," engage with Latin rhythms, allude to hard bop. . . . In other words, there's nothing "pure," no absolute borders around the stylistic area occupied. And it's not a matter of the group saying to themselves, "if we play some of this, the CD will sell more copies and get more radio play." Rather it's a stylistic compulsion on the part of the artists to express themselves fully through whatever musical resources are available to them. By letting the walls of stylistic absolutism fall away, they enrich their vocabulary and give the listener a program that not only pleases, it gives a dynamic and creative twist to the music so that it can live and breathe freely. "Freedom" is not a constraint to play by the rules of what freedom is supposed to sound like; it is the opportunity to build musical programs that do not carry with them narrow proscriptions of what is allowable.

Matthew Shipp lets that happen. In the process, he creates a "free" piano trio recording that is one of the best I've heard this year.


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