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Matthew Shipp - Equilibrium

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Artist: Matthew Shipp

Album: Equilibrium

Label: Thirsty Ear

Review date: Apr. 1, 2003

Intriguing Imbalance

I love it when musicians write their own liner notes. Having a player or composer’s program notes at hand gives critics a convenient lens through which to evaluate a given project. While pianist Matthew Shipp’s previous releases on Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series have included only the most basic recording and personnel information, his new CD, Equilibrium, comes with a concise summary of his past and present musical goals.

Shipp posits Equilibrium as the culmination of all his Blue Series records to date. Instead of working towards one musical goal as he has claims to have done with his Pastoral Composure, New Orbit, and Nu Bop releases, Shipp is shooting for the moon here. He wants his latest release to 1) “[function] as a pure jazz ambient soundscape,” 2) demonstrate a fusion of avant-garde jazz with more traditional jazz styles and 3) incorporate “[electronic] beat elements.” Shipp’s voracious ambition is admirable, and it is probably this ambition which has led some of the mainstream jazz community to dub him the most important modern innovator in the genre. However, as might be expected, there are a lot of rough edges to the potpourri Shipp presents here.

Shipp’s concept of jazz as ambient soundscape is interesting and leads him and his bandmates – Khan Jamal on vibes, William Parker on bass, Gerald Cleaver on drums, and Chris Flam on “synths and programming” – into some genuinely affecting musicmaking. Seemingly, what Shipp means by soundscapes are musical situations that reward both passive and active listening. The best example of this, and in my opinion the most fulfilling performance on the record, is Equilibrium’s eponymous opening track.

On this performance, Shipp and his bandmates play rhythmically free, yet unmistakably jazz-inflected chamber music. Shipp sets the tone with an eerie, balletic introduction. When the band arrives on scene, everyone’s playing texture, shadowing Shipp somewhat tentatively. Then Shipp and Jamal dance in somewhat dense counterpoint. Throughout the piece, Shipp keeps worrying a simple, surreal theme – somewhere between Stravinsky and Merchant-Ivory – that keeps the music grounded. The overall effect is that of a soundtrack, a musical backdrop, but when one listens closely, puzzling and delightful ambiguities arise.

Shipp’s electro-acoustic experiments do not fare so well. When Chris Flam’s programmed beats come to the fore, as on “Vamp to Vibe” and “Cohesion,” Equilibrium takes on a decidedly awkward sound. Shipp dominates each of these tracks with a simple, serviceable piano vamp that becomes grating once the beats enter; the acoustic and electronic rhythms never seem to gel comfortably. The noir-ish simplicity of Shipp’s writing on these tunes suggests that he is attempting to create steadily flowing atmospheres, but the failure of the ensemble to achieve a deep pocket jostles the listener.

The rest of the record wavers in quality. While tracks like “World of Blue Glass,” a sumptuous, chamber-inflected take on the piano trio mode of Bill Evans, and “Nu Matrix,” in which Jamal and Shipp float in Flam’s aquatic miasma of filters and samples, recapture the mysterious energy of the title track, others like the beat-driven “The Root” and the Shipp-less “The Key,” sound conceptually interesting, but strangely lifeless.

Listening to Equilibrium is like attending a Matthew Shipp museum retrospective: one samples the various facets of Shipp’s recent career without delving too deeply into any one of them. This approach is frustrating, but that’s not such a bad thing in jazz, a genre in which so many players, mainstream and avant-garde alike, tidily fulfill their audience’s expectations with every release. Shipp earns plenty of “E” for effort here and, occasionally, really dazzles.

By Hank Shteamer

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