This review of Matthew Shipp's newest genre-hopping electronics experiment begins as many reviews of such experiments end: with a discussion of purism. 'Purists' are Shipp's enemies, and they're typically 'sneering.' These 'purists' apparently 'sneer' at any music that's not free jazz that's played manually by cats who sweat while they labor over acoustic instruments.
Has anyone actually met one of these 'purists'? I haven't. Everyone I know who likes free jazz likes lots of other types of music too, and usually appreciates when musicians try to experiment and push themselves. So maybe if there's 'sneering' going on next time Shipp bangs his piano over a limp hip-hop beat, it might be the result of a more complex reaction than simple 'purism.'
Shipp's problem is that he's an excellent free jazz pianist who has enough vision to realize that free jazz is kind of a cul de sac, and not enough vision to find an honest way out of it. As an improvising pianist, he never sounds like Cecil Taylor or any other early free jazz musician, but he never strays far from Taylor's aesthetic, either. You can sound an amazing number of different (and amazing) ways and still be free jazz, but none of those ways are terribly different from any other in the grand scheme of things. Which is fine, really, but not for Matthew Shipp.
So, Shipp and Thirsty Ear's Peter Gordon created the Blue Series because, Gordon claims, "Regardless of genre, music trends are showing a growing complacency to challenge convention. Feeling frustrated by this stagnancy, I realized that by creating a series of records marrying jazz's many languages, perhaps a new form could arise."
We ought to approach Gordon's missive with suspicion, and not just because of the awkward prose. "Music trends" are showing "complacency"? Even if this were true, should we care? Is "music" a monolith to which changes are sweeping and absolute? No: at any given time, there's great music and bad music, "complacent" music and progressive music. So why should we care about "trends"? If the trends bother you, go listen to any of the thousands of artists that buck the trends. And as for creating a "new form": well, we'll see, but the free jazz and improvised music communities are doing just fine and doesn't need to be saved.
Shipp's newest Blue Series effort, Sorcerer Sessions Featuring the Music of Matthew Shipp, features sidekicks William Parker on bass, Gerald Cleaver on drums and FLAM on synths and programming, as well as violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain. Also on board is Shipp's equivalent in the "classical world," Bang on a Can member Evan Ziporyn, who like Shipp believes that the way to lead the knuckle-dragging art community into the future is by, like, COMBINING things.
Press releases are usually self-serving and hyperbolic, but Shipp's takes the cake:
"The jazz and classical worlds are no longer merely intersecting. With Sorcerer Sessions, the door to a new world has been opened, birthing a new breed of advanced improvisational ambient music."
How nice for Shipp and Ziporyn to open this "door to a new world" for the rest of us. Clueless university arts programmers the world over will surely open their checkbooks in gratitude. And how nice, also, for Advanced Improvisers like Shipp and, um, Evan Ziporyn (?!) to demonstrate their prowess for the Beginning and Intermediate classes.
And the "jazz and classical worlds" have been mixing freely for nearly a century! Has Shipp not heard of George Gershwin and Igor Stravinsky, among many, many others? Shipp's self-importance becomes all the more alarming when we consider how carefully many reviews of his recent music echo the sentiments expressed in his press releases.
The concept behind the Blue Series is the definition of arrogance, and it's not as if the sounding results make the arrogance seem justified. Sure, there have been several nice Blue Series records, but many of them have been straightforward combo jazz, like Parker's Raining On The Moon and Mat Maneri's Blue Decco. Tim Berne's The Shell Game was nice, but he's been doing the free-jazz-meets-prog thing for decades. The Spring Heel Jack / Blue Series collaborations Masses and Amassed were great, but that was because the textures Spring Heel Jack cooked up were so abstract and ametrical that their collaborators could just do what they usually do.
In 2002, Shipp unleashed the hip-hop influenced Nu Bop, and he has since released collaborations with several hip underground producers. Now, hip hop may be the hot thing to 'do' now, but there's a little problem with combining it with free jazz: they don't have much to do with one another. It's fine to try to do so, but you'd better have a pretty good strategy. Nu Bop got great reviews, apparently because it was 'daring' or something, but it sounded terrible. FLAM's rudimentary beats would have been laughed out of most legitimate hip hop studios, and Shipp's flailing over them mostly just confirmed that his very human jazz touch has nothing to do with rigid tempos. If Shipp went to a David S. Ware Quartet rehearsal and tried to convince his mates that they ought to practice with a metronome, they'd look at him like he was crazy.
The most frustrating thing about the Blue Series is that the improv-meets-electronics idea is ALREADY HAPPENING and has been happening for years. Not only are Shipp and company not "advanced," they're way, way behind. Hip hop has been using jazz samples in interesting ways for decades. George Lewis is among a huge number of improvisers and programmers who create and play along with interactive electronics. Literally hundreds of musicians, such as Keith Rowe, Ikue Mori and Jason Lescalleet, now improvise regularly on electronics. And for years, Ellery Eskelin's trio with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black has quietly been doing exactly the sort of genre-hopping, electronics-heavy free jazz that Shipp seems to think he's discovered, and they've been doing it much better than Shipp has. The Chicago Underground Duo has, too.
So what about Sorcerer Sessions? Amazingly, it's even worse than we might expect. If you're going to make a record this conceptually dicey – or 'daring,' I guess – you ought to at least make sure the playing is technically high-quality and the production is good. On these counts, Sorcerer Sessions is 0-for-2.
The lead improviser in these Sessions isn't Shipp, but rather Daniel Bernard Roumain, who isn't even a particularly good violinist, much less a great one like Mat Maneri or Leroy Jenkins. His sound is poor, and the content of his playing is essentially a catalog of classical and free improv tropes. Brittle, Vivaldi-style scale fragments? Got 'em ("Particle"). Ill-considered extended techniques? Yep ("Urban Shadows"). Maudlin (and out of tune) faux-Arabic ornamentation? Why not ("x6")?
Ziporyn fares slightly better in his new role as Advanced Improviser, but only slightly. He often sounds unsure and overmatched, and it's unclear what his background in classical music has to do with what he actually contributes to the album. Here he's simply an improvising clarinetist, and there are thousands of clarinetists whose usual gig is improvising who could have played just as well or better.
Shipp's piano is fairly prevalent here, but rare are the inspired high-wire improvisations that have made many of his previous releases a joy. Instead, he often plays chorale-style chords which only illustrate that his touch is not his strong suit. Elsewhere, he plinks aimlessly, as if he can't decide on a direction. Parker and Cleaver mostly stay in the background. I don't blame them, but Sorcerer Sessions would have been a lot easier to take if Shipp, Parker and Cleaver had taken the reins from Roumain and Ziporyn.
FLAM, meanwhile, needs to be stopped. He's several Blue Series albums into his career, and he still hasn't managed to create anything that doesn't sound behind the times. In many of his contributions to Sorcerer Sessions, he processes sound made by the other players. Usually, he just distorts their sounds a bit, or pitch-shifts them, or plays them backward. He rarely does anything with computers that Otto Luening couldn't have done with a tape machine fifty years ago. Sounding completely contemporary isn't the end-all of music, of course, but FLAM doesn't sound like he's referencing early tape music; he just sounds clueless.
Worse, his sounds don't possess the intimate production values most good electronic music does. FLAM's synths sound like they were recorded live in a room, not meticulously crafted in a studio. Most good electronic music doesn't sound like it was recorded at a gig, and there's a good reason for that – unlike most jazz, electronic music depends heavily on timbre, and timbres often lose their impact unless they're recorded well.
As if the poor playing and production weren't bad enough, several tracks are further destroyed by lame compositional conceits. Someone types loudly and obliviously on a computer keyboard throughout "Keystroke," for example, even though the typing has nothing to do with the improvising underneath. "Urban Shadows" is filled with samples of city life that seem like only misguided attempts to seem hip and relevant.
With its uninspired playing, bad sound, superficial genre-smooshing and mismatched lineup, Sorcerer Sessions is hard to forgive. But it would be easier – not easy, but easier – without the 'we are the future of music' rhetoric. Music doesn't need saviors to change it, and it especially doesn't need saviors who aren't even close to the cutting edge. Music grows and changes in organic ways; it doesn't need Matthew Shipp and his muscles and pickaxe to knock down walls. For every Shipp who wants others to look at the boundary he's just knocked over, there are five musicians for whom that boundary never existed.
At one time, Matthew Shipp had some very good music he wanted to sell you. Now he realizes that the style he was good at, free jazz, is not easy to sell. So now he and his label want to sell you a set of ideas. Music is stagnant, he says. A small group of Musical Geniuses is needed to make Great Music that changes everything.
These ideas aren't true, but they can be very tempting. When people are confronted with a complex web of ideas, such as the history of American music, they have two choices: they can either try to understand the way the web of ideas works and admit they don't completely understand it, or they can invent a new, simpler web of ideas that distorts and replaces the more complicated one. Given the choice between viewing the history of American music as a simple game of connect the dots with a few fixed points or as tremendously complex web of individuals and groups whose contributions are difficult to discern or separate from their context, most people will choose the former. This is why so many people fight to canonize their favorite records, declaring them Platonically Great; this is why people think the Sex Pistols invented punk or Elvis invented rock and roll.
Shipp's self-important attitude (or his handlers', and it doesn't really matter which - if he isn't exercising some control over those who represent him, shame on him) is deeply conservative and, in its own way, aristocratic – he aims to form a canon that excludes other 'lesser' talents and puts himself at the forefront. As Sorcerer Sessions shows, the idea that Shipp is at the forefront of anything right now is absurd. But judging by the fact that he's the 'it' guy in free improv, people are buying it, probably at least partially because he told them to.
By Charlie Wilmoth