Matthew Shipp in Conversation with Steve Dalachinsky

There are always those one expects to find at a Shipp/Mitchell concert: The usual
suspects. Diehard fans who wouldn’t miss either of these giants no matter the price.
And it was great to see the huge SOLD OUT sign in front of Carnegie Hall’s theater
entrance. But here’s the big heartwarming surprise audience-wise. Almost
everybody Shipp knew and hung out with since coming to New York in the 80’s and
moving to the lower eastside where he still resides without a piano and with his
wife, singer Delia Scaife, came out to pay respect and homage and above all to
support this artist and friend who has stuck to his artistic guns for all these years
and who, like Mitchell never veered off course or attempted to sell out. It was like
old home week way back when I first met Matt and he and the crew hung out at
various venues in the lower east side attending all those wild parties.

Shipp’s trio plus Mitchell were part of Carnegie Hall’s “The 60’s” series which runs
through March and includes art, dance music and film in various participatory
venues. This particular concert was sponsored in part by the great producer
entrepreneur George Wein, now in his 90’s, who, has given us, amongst other great
enterprises, the famous Newport Jazz Festival at which Shipp’s trio will appear this
year. The concert lasted about 80 minutes and began with a Shipp solo, followed by
his trio with Michael Bisio and Newman Taylor Baker after which Mitchell played a
miraculous solo set. Shipp came back in first followed by the rest of the trio. My
preferences in order were the trio, Roscoe’s solo, Shipp’s solo following close behind
then the quartet which was indescribable and had moments that clashed language-
wise but gelled perfectly by its conclusion in what was an intense evening of music
that chased some patrons away. For those who missed this historic concert or who
want to hear more you can pick up the new Shipp-Mitchell duo cd on Rougueart
which contains a live concert in Sardinia from 2005 with informative, engaging liner
notes by Yuko Otomo (my lovely, brilliant wife.)

I sat down with Shipp at the request of Tribes founder, Steve Cannon and asked the
following questions:

SD: How did it feel to play Carnegie for the first time?

MS: My impressions about playing at Carnegie Hall. Well on one level the music
makes the gig not the venue meaning that I am full on concentrated on the music at
all times and it’s what is inside of me that is important - not outside things. But there
is no denying that it was a privilege to play at the hall with its tremendous history
especially considering a part of my childhood was spent as a classical pianist and we
all know the resonance that this hall has within that world. It was a warm room with
a great staff and the whole experience was very positive.
SD: What was George Wein’s part in all this?

MS: I am not sure how George Wein fit into the production. I saw on the program
that he was involved. I was contacted to do the gig by an outside agency but the
person who contacted me used to work for Wein though he doesn’t now. It’s
interesting since I am also playing at the Newport Jazz Fest this year so I am
obviously on George’s mind. I know he thinks of me as really connected to the
stream of music that was the 60s avant-garde despite the fact that I have my own
style of playing piano that does not sound like anyone from that era and I’d say he
sees me as connected to that than say some younger artist from a newer generation
who plays new jazz, like Mary Halverson who he sees as a whole new thing. But over
the years Wein has shown up at a few of my gigs.
SD: Are there other places you would like to play in that perhaps haven’t asked you
as yet? Say the Village Vanguard perhaps. And how do you feel about Wynton
Marsalis and the entire Jazz at Lincoln Center thing?

MS: I just move ahead with the music on a day to day basis and don’t think about
where I have been invited to play as opposed to where I have not been. Well of
course I am aware - hyper-aware of where I have been overlooked but still there is
enough going on to deal with what is in front of me. I try not to take things
personally. I say “I try” -- - I enjoy all the different settings whether it’s a
downtown hipster vibe like the Stone or an upscale jazz club like the Bluenote or the
Jazz Standard and I have a great relationship with the people who work at Jazz
at Lincoln Center where I play at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola. I’d say with the people who
work there, it’s probably for the best that I don’t talk or deal with Wynton. I don’t
think that would work. And of course I am an intricate part of the Vision Festival
scene so a richness is starting to develop about how I deal and am accepted by the
many facets of the New York jazz scene.
SD: What’s your thoughts on the maestro, Cecil Taylor?

MS: ha ha Cecil Taylor. Well he was certainly an inspiration when I was a teen. To
me the inspiration was more about the fact that he found a way to escape the
prison of the tradition more than the actual content of his playing. Of course I enjoy
the content. When he is at his best he is a true poet. But even though in some ways
he is the grandaddy of free jazz piano playing I think you could get to what I do
without him, meaning that in some ways what I do is an abstraction of Bud Powell,
Monk, Tristano and Mcoy Tyner. To those names I’d add some classical influences
with whatever that Matthew Shipp factor is. So what I am saying is that my
particular synthesis could have come about even without him despite the fact that it
is easy to see things in a direct evolutionary line and since he is the granddad of free
improv piano some people might not grasp that I could exist if he never did. But I
could have and I do.

But the best work he has done in the past does pass the test of time and he is in the
pantheon for good reasons. He is a crazy son of a bitch but we love him for that. I
have not really listened to him  for 30 years though I’ve really been conscious of not being influenced by him and keeping my vocabulary in a whole different realm. I feel
I have been very successful at that, especially considering that when I first joined the
David S. Ware quartet, which was my first major exposure, everyone in the band
was a Cecil Taylor alumnus [Ware, William Parker and Mark Edwards], so I was in
the belly of the beast but I managed to maintain my own identity despite that. I was
in my late 20s at that point. But anyway Cecil’s contribution to the jazz language has
been great and it took a lot of courage when he did his seminal work .
SD: What are your overall feelings about having Roscoe in the mix with your already
very tight working trio?

MS: My trio has a very distinct identity and bringing in Roscoe Mitchell made for an
adjustment but that is what the music is about: dealing with what’s in front of you.
So yes with Roscoe the trio did not deal with the so called relationship we have with
the jazz piano trio tradition but we dealt with a more rolling and cosmically
extended technique type of esthetic that Roscoe has employed in groups like his
Note Factory that I had played in. But the interaction between me and my trio was
still that. The interaction between me and my trio. It’s just that we had the added
factor of Roscoe’s very unique way of playing which presented me with a treasure
trove of motivic material and I, as the pianist in the middle of this, had to negotiate a
connecting link between the way my trio phrases and the way Roscoe phrases -- -
What creates new ideas within me in such situations, new things to do, is that I play
with my trio because it is my trio and I have a long history with Roscoe so I am
uniquely positioned in this case to find the bridge between these two subsets to
make it into a cohesive whole as a quartet concept.

After the concert Shipp, myself, his wife, my wife and all our pals from the “hood”
head to the nearest bar and except for a few changes in habits, it truly is like old
times again.