Matthew Shipp: Jazztronica [A Hard Thing To Do]

Matthew Shipp
Jazztronica [A Hard Thing To Do]

by Mike Zwerin

copyright © 2004 Mike Zwerin

Paris: It is not possible to have a wardrobe malfunction in jazz. Vulgarity is just not an option with this music. Try to think of one vulgar jazzman -- Kenny G comes quickly to mind but there are not many others. Jazz is about telling the truth. Players have been incompetent, incoherent and unswinging and it has been presented with vulgarity but that's not the music's fault.

Talking about telling the truth, Bill Clinton recently told the jazz magazine Down Beat what was on his iPod: "Most of the Gil Evans/Miles Davis lexicon, Stan Getz's early '50s recordings, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, much Coltrane, seven versions of 'Summertime' and six versions of 'Body and Soul.'" Down Beat quoted him: "I want to hear if somebody can play 'Body And Soul' in a way I find more interesting than Coleman Hawkins did it."

The playlist is a bit too good to be true. Could such knowledgeable programming have been possible without the help of a spinner or two? Hawk, "much" Coltrane, early '50s Getz? The "lexicon" of Miles Davis indeed. You wonder why bother to lie about it but at the same time you cannot help also wondering what he says is on his iPod when he talks to Rolling Stone.

The truth can be ambiguous. "It's a pleasure to be back here," Stan Getz once told an audience in Copenhagen. "This is deja vu for me. I lived in Copenhagen for three years. I left my heart in Copenhagen." The audience sighed with satisfaction and applauded before Getz chuckled and added: "I said the same thing last night in Stockholm." Maybe he did maybe he didn't. Ambiguity is to jazz what vulgarity is to pop music; not necessary, but welcome.

The pianist and composer Matthew Shipp, who makes music that has been called "jazztronica," is aware that his motives for fusing acoustic free jazz with programmed funk beats, synthesized drum loops, samples, computer programs and DJs can be easily misunderstood. Until now, such use of electricity has mostly been associated with chassis-rattling sub-woofers and volume turned up to eleven. Sixties free jazz was the thinking man's soundtrack to the civil rights movement. Is this only one more way to exploit honest music?

"My generation grew up with pop music in our ears," says Shipp, 43. "There' s just no escaping it. When I talk to electronic and underground hip hop artists like DJ Spooky or the Anti Pop Consortium, even though we come from different areas of music, our views are not that far apart. As an avant-garde jazzman, I am trying to explore some of the same things as they are."

Raised in Wilmington, Delaware, influenced first by Ahmad Jamal and then by Cecil Taylor, Shipp continues to play acoustic piano, only rarely doubling on electric keyboards. Technology is moving too fast for him to keep up with and he is not that interested so he surrounds himself with people who are. "Above all," he is "intensely concerned with maintaining the integrity of free jazz." The meeting with electronic music "just happened. It wasn't planned."

Rock musician Henry Rollins, a fan and former producer of his, introduced Shipp to Peter Gordon whose independent rock label Thirsty Ear had released albums by people like Brian Eno and Robert Wyatt. Since 2,000, Shipp has directed Thirsty Ear's Blue Series, 22 albums in all, the basic philosophy of which is: "There will always be a place for an acoustic musician sweating over his instrument. That sort of a relationship to making music is just part of the human experience. But electronic music has by now become part of our nervous systems. It's inescapable. Jazz has to reflect that, too."

Most of Shipp' s work is in Europe, to which he commutes from New York. Although he does not play dances, he likes to see his listeners physically moved. Blue Series albums by Shipp and DJ Spooky have sold over 10,000 copies each, also mostly in Europe. These are big numbers for an avant-garde jazz label. The same sort of listeners who were alarmed by the fusion of jazz and rock suspect jazztronica may be another Trojan horse. Some critics say that this music is more interesting to write about than to listen to -- others, that it' s the future of jazz.

"It's one possible future," Shipp agrees. "What makes the two things work together is that even though they seem so incompatible, the premise of free jazz is that you improvise with whatever is in your environment. If it's a machine, you interact with that. Putting human breath into electronic components is the challenge of the whole thing. Programmed rhythms provide new colors.

"We take machine-made music and try to give it a personality and make it come alive. It's a hard thing to do."

Mike Zwerin originally published this article in the International Herald Tribune.

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