Shipp Shapes
In a Blue corner, with Matthew Shipp.

Stansted airport, 16 September 2002, 5am. The baggage handler peers into my holdall, and withdraws the cd's I've packed for my 10-day giro of southern Italy. I'd selected them carefully, as every gram devoted to shiny clear plastic would limit space for the finest Gavoi piccante cheese and salsiccia Calabrese known to man on the return journey. He asked what the music was, and I explained that it was by a cutting edge jazz pianist with a fondness for electronica. "Oh, like Jean-Michel Jarre or Dave Brubeck?", he ventured, as the name Matthew Shipp meant nothing to him. The comparisons, though unflattering, made me stop and think. Perhaps that will help him sell more records. Who needs a five-star review in Down Beat when you can claim lineage with the likes of Jarre's 'Magnetic Fields' rather than Stephin Merritt's? I hurriedly snapped out of my reverie, and reminded myself I had a plane to catch. No, Jarre and Brubeck are the Enemy, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Benny Green would have applauded Shipp. He would have made space for him on one of his Sunday afternoon shows on Radio 2, nestling alongside some choice anecdotes from a life spent absorbed in the minutiae of cricket and jazz. His P. G. Wodehouse wit (I almost wrote irrepressible cockney accent, but that would have conjured up echoes of Dick van Dyke and other heinous crimes) would have made a mockery of the 'free' jazz tag that's stuck on anything remotely challenging. "Free jazz? Yeah, free the jazz and jail the critics. Bring on Oscar Pettiford and Red Norvo any day". I'd say Shipp deserves to be played on the same bill as the finest popular songs of the last century: some Frank Loesser show tunes, Charles Trenet singing 'Que Reste-t-il de nos amours', the ever changing blue moods of Nat Cole or Bobby Darin. It's telling that Shipp himself pledges equal allegiance to the likes of Herbie Nichols, Paul Bley and Cecil Taylor. It shows how he defies categories, and his ongoing 'Blue Series' for the New York-based Thirsty Ear label manifests this desire to showcase the most adventurous and free thinking jazz around right now.

The fact it's coming out of New York is all the more fitting, as Shipp's vitality and volatility reflect the bustle of the town's cultural mix. His recent releases have proved he can sit tight with the pounding rhythms of urban hip hop, but can just as easily shift between a George Russell mood and Sun Ra rhythmic excess. It wouldn't be too far-fetched to suggest a link between Shipp and the Russell of the celebratory New York, N.Y. album on Impulse!, with its lustrous roll-call of players, from Coltrane to Art Farmer. That album captured a dynamic feeling that New York is Now!, without sacrificing any of the skilled interweaving of scales and ideas Russell was famous for. Similarly, Shipp thrives on ideas, generating strong sense impressions that nestle alongside a need to shake the listener out of any received wisdom about what he's hearing. Shipp can run the gamut between reined-in chromaticism and a wigged-out Sun Ra trippiness.

Sun Ra may not have been renowned for the rigour of his thinking, but he just shot from the hip and told it like it is. It's all there on 'Moon Dance', from Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy. An ominous studio creation that scares the pants out of you, depending on how close to the speakers you sit and the lighting in the room. Stomping battalions of drum rhythms, eerie keyboards and hints of exoticism, not so much a Far East suite as East of the River Nile, which shows that Le Sun Ra had as much in common with el Augustus Pablo as Duke Ellington. Shipp takes you to strange cosmic spaces on New Orbit, which tears pages out of the rule-book and reminds you jazz can be all things to all listeners. There's no shortage of 'compositions' here, but still the feel is of an organic unity driving proceedings. The trumpet work of Wadada Leo Smith has enough voodoo in its soul to ensure the album lives up to its 'Blue' label billing. It's awash with a deep melancholic feel. These waters are choppy, and the conjunction with the Suspiria-style bowed bass from William Parker adds an edge that gives this record a genuine frisson. Miss these dark waters at your peril.

This year's Nu Bop offering is a great place to start- it showcases all the dynamic variety you want from a new jazz record. I hear echoes of Jazz in Silhouette (or is that Standards in Silhouette?), the Shipp profile isn't coy about digging the new scene. He kicks up a percussive head of steam on this record, taking his group into tough-minded encounters with sci-fi style other worlds. Titles like 'Space Shipp' and 'Rocket Shipp' let you know what he's thinking. There's a deep vibe pulsing through that has me picturing Herbie Hancock at the helm of his own rocket launcher in his Thrust days, steering his group through street-slick palm-greasing enterprises. A pre-limp Hancock, when he was strutting his techno-jazz credentials in front of a crossover audience. These are hard-ass concoctions played with total conviction by Shipp's team of commandos, including mighty bassist (and veteran of long-distance encounters with Cecil Taylor) William Parker, Guillermo E. Brown on drums and FLAM's genius synth snatches. But then there are slower and moodier pieces like 'X-Ray', where Daniel Carter's flute announces its presence. It's an eerie track, taking you with it to a rarefied desert sandscape. It reminds me of Dolphy's reverence for the great Severino Gazzelloni, as namechecked on his Out to Lunch lp. Gazzelloni could inject danger into avant-garde flute pieces by the likes of Henze and Martinu, playing as if his life depended on it through hushed passages where your needle struggles to make any music audible through the cracks in your vinyl.

It's part of Matt Shipp's make-up to be inclusive and elusive, to pick up on an impression or a found sound. His love of Ives comes as no surprise, as his music has as many layers and is thick with references to the sounds of the streets or the bandstand. Listen to a Sunday afternoon in the park or to skating in Central Park. The new Shipp release Equilibrium deserves to earn critical plaudits. A rosette in the Penguin Guide? That would be too little, too late. I hear Shipp entertains himself by doing the rounds of small record stores in his neighbourhood on the Lower East Side, making sure his records are in stock while nothing by the likes of Miles is visible on the shelves. I love his downplaying of the foibles of critical reputation builders. For him a five star review isn't worth the paper it's printed on, just more cheap advertising for a short term memorial.

Equilibrium, though, should come with a free packet of Gitanes, it's that kind of record. The cd itself has no need of a health warning, I might add. Unless you're averse to music that picks itself up and doesn't waste your time with unnecessary prelims.

Equilibrium boasts a cinematic line of reference, not of the complacent heart string tweaking kind though. Picture the finest Bristol rhythms, Portishead at their most chillingly nocturnal, Smith and Mighty taking on all comers on a Bacharach and David ticket. A city of sounds- snatches of crowd effects with waterways only a short way behind you.

It's precious and stirring, and when the electronics and Shipp's piano cut loose, as on the mission statement that is 'Cohesion', he reminds you of the best journeys. Not necessarily the furthest distances, just the most complete, where the eye loses itself in the details. The film running inside your head when a gargoyle leers, or a gnarled olive tree twists at you through the train window.

Shipp's Blue Series has a lot of smoke left in it to blow. Equilibrium even boasts some tingling vibe work from Khan Jamal, a welcome addition to the familiar roster of names. Titles like 'Vamp to Vibe' are true to the niggling, under-your-skin feel of these rhythms. 'World of Blue Glass' surely gives a nod to another out-there pianist, Bud Powell, whose days in an asylum were captured in 'Glass Enclosure'. The dynamic belongs to jazz in the truest sense, strange, earthy, constantly shifting.

A final word- Shipp is a letter away from Shepp. What he's been doing might not be revolutionary, but it's the sound of today and tomorrow for some time to come. He's in it for the long haul. It's a thieves' highway, but he's one hell of a driver.

© 2002 Marino Guida