Pianist Matthew Shipp has become in recent years a pianist at the very top of his game, one of the stylistic master pianists of our era. He is one of those very few pianists in jazz where every new recording must be heard, because each one breaks ground and/or consolidates his later developments.
The Shipp Trio has become a phenomena unto itself. The combination these days of Matthew and Michael Bisio on bass is one of exciting and exalted rapport. Drummer Whit Dickey puts in a third voice of exceptional pliability on drums, pushing the music in rhythmically open directions with a special mastery of his own. I understand that he has left the group recently to pursue other projects. So this may be the last recording with this specific line up. This may well be the last recording with Dickey at the drums. He sounds good, very good.
The recording is To Duke (RogueArt ROG-060), a tribute to Duke Ellington with the trio doing very personal versions of seven Ellington classics, plus three Shipp compositions that play off of their immersion in Duke's magic.
There have been some threads recently on social media that question the in/out, avant/mainstream division as something that breaks down with artists who channel both tradition and innovation. Certainly the Shipp Trio here make a case for a simultaneity of stylistic preoccupations that transcends the splitting of categories in jazz practice.
The music respects the tradition in Shipp and Company's treatment of the Ellington themes. The themes are springboards to an original trio openness while retaining the identity of the themes very strongly. Matthew tends to state the themes with a special propulsion that puts them in a tempo zone, yet while this is happening bass and drums play freely in and around the tempo. Both Matthew and Michael then play freely with the implications of the themes, masterfully so, with abstracted offshoots of the thematic material that can be blazingly all-over, mesmerising in Matt's use of repetition-development of phrases, or post-Monkish punctuations with "syncopated" chordal bursts. But of course what is thought of as Monkish was also very much Duke-ish. Monk got something from Duke's playing that is not often spoken of, but you hear it if you listen to both closely. So that all fits.
The interaction of Shipp and Bisio by now has become a wonder. They intertwine around themselves in brilliant ways--and Dickey is right there opening up the rhythmic possibilities in and out of the implied tempo.
Every number has its own way of going about this--poetically, artistically, transcendently. It is brilliant as the art of improvisation. Matthew leads the way with an open inspiration that never flags. The couple of Shipp originals fit perfectly without straying from the path traveled by the trio here. "Sparks" is especially attractive and cool. It's a cut I would play for someone who asked me, "What is Matthew Shipp all about these days?" In around three minutes it states a great deal and then is gone, in ways similar to how Duke was initially limited to short time spans in the days of 78s. It says much in a compact space.
So, at the end of the day, after five listens, I must say this one is a kind of masterpiece. It's one of my favorite Shipp Trio albums. You need a little time to grow into it, or I did (always do) and then it stays with you after the music stops. It's that kind of experience. If you don't know Maestro Shipp's way, and there may be some out there who don't, this is a great place to start. It's a great place to BE, regardless. Get it!