Jazz Great Matthew Shipp Reunites with Core Trio This Weekend

In an exclusive interview, the "mystic musician" discusses his artistic evolution, his musical tastes, and his spirituality.

By Justin Mitchell November 21, 2014

The Core Trio Featuring Matthew Shipp
Nov 22 at 8
Ovations Night Club
2536 Times Blvd, Ste. B

Back in the early 1990s, while many of his more celebrated contemporaries were imitating jazz giants of the swing and hard bop eras, pianist Matthew Shipp was developing his own style and collaborating with avant-garde luminaries like William Parker (former bassist for free jazz icon Cecil Taylor), David S. Ware, and Roscoe Mitchell. Many in the jazz world initially dismissed his work as noisy and confused, but Shipp persevered. Dozens of albums later it’s abundantly clear that he is the true heir of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. He has taken their tradition of dissonant, bluesy pianism and turned it into something genuinely new.

And unlike many of his risk-averse, backward-looking colleagues from the old days, Shipp is still incredibly productive. His work from this year includes The Root of Things, his third trio album with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey; Darkseid Recitals, a collection of live duets with saxophonist Darius Jones; I’ve Been to Many Places, a solo album; and The Core Trio with Matthew Shipp, which features Houston musicians Thomas Helton on bass, Seth Paynter on saxophone, and Joe Hertenstein on drums. This weekend Shipp reunites with The Core Trio for a show at Ovation and an unaccompanied performance at the Houston Composers Salon. He recently spoke to me from his home in New York City about coming to Houston, making avant-garde music, and connecting spiritually with audiences.

Houstonia: Will your upcoming show with The Core Trio be your first time performing in Houston or Texas?

Matthew Shipp: No, I’ve been to Houston a couple times. Do you know Dave Dove? He’s a promoter there. He’s brought me there a couple [times]. I’ve been there with the [Matthew Shipp] Trio once. Years ago I played a duo at Rice University with William Parker on bass. So I’ve been to Houston a few times. As far as Texas goes, I’ve played Austin many times.

What was your impression of the city or the audience when you came to Houston?

I had a really good time, especially the Rice University show. We had a really good crowd. It was Pauline Oliveros’s organization that sponsored that. And both times I’ve had a very good audience and a very attentive audience that knew the music. I know KTRU is one of the best radio stations in the country. There’s really a core audience there that’s really into hearing new things. It’s always good to be around a culture like that.

You work in all kinds of contexts, but a lot of the improvised music along the lines of what you play with The Core Trio could seem mysterious to some untrained or uninitiated ears. I was hoping you could shed light on how music like that gets made. When you go into the studio or when you perform, how does the creative process work for you?

Well, first of all, I’ve played in all kinds of situations and I’ve had to play in situations where it’s not like a jazz avant-garde audience. In fact, last week I just played up at Jazz at Lincoln Center and did a Duke Ellington tribute. It went very well. At the end of the day music is universal—it’s tones, it’s notes, it’s emotions. I don’t necessarily think what I do is for a specialized audience. I’m trying to project some emotions and feelings into an instrument and that’s a universal thing.

Now, whether somebody understands or feels the language is a different thing. But what I’m attempting to do is no different than a country singer. I’m just sitting at an instrument and playing my heart out. I find that if that’s the premise, then I can communicate to a lot of different people, even if they’re not necessarily jazz people, or jazz avant-garde people. Sometimes people, for whatever reason, even if they’re not familiar with the music, they feel the language on some level. And sometimes not. Who’s to say why anybody relates to you? They don’t need an intellectual background to get it, they just need to come with an open mind and an open spirit and the communication can be made or might not be made.

So I sit at an instrument and I try to create a narrative based on my internal world. And I try to basically develop some type of poem that I offer to the audience. And I don’t think there’s any difference between—in that way—what I do and, you know, a pop songwriter or a classical composer or whatever. It’s just that my specific language happens to be a language that people associate with something that they generally call the “jazz avant-garde.” But I’m just trying to tell a story. I consider myself a poet. I’m just trying to tell my story of what it is to be me. And that can relate to other people in some way.

Speaking of your language on the piano, how did you manage to develop it?

I think that’s a hard question to answer. It’s a long process for that to happen. I would guess that the reason I ended up with my own voice was because I wanted to have my own voice on such a deep, deep level. That eventually happened, but it’s a long process. I’ve always wanted my own thing. [Thelonious] Monk, Cecil Taylor, Bill Evans, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker were kind of the influences that let me know it could happen. Andrew Hill, Paul Bley. But it’s just such a long process and you’ve got to really a) want that to happen, and b) you’ve got to be fearless as far as investigating who you are and what makes you tick. And then you have to be willing to go with it.

Usually in jazz, what people want—they’re looking to be authentic. If you’re a jazz student and you play something it always sounds wrong to you and not like people on the record. But what is really authenticity? At a certain point, what sounds strange or weird you have to be willing to go with it because the mistakes you make when you’re trying to copy something are actually using what your personality is. It takes a certain type of craziness to go with that and then develop a whole universe based off of that. And who’s to say why somebody does that and somebody else doesn’t? I don’t know.

I think in my case, also, I luckily had a couple mentors who helped keep my priorities straight. I remember I had one mentor, not a music teacher per se, but an older guy that I went to for a lot of advice. He was a composer himself, but I never studied music with him. He actually worked as a janitor at one of my old colleges. I remember having a really bad gig where I was playing with a quartet, and at the time I played kind of a mixture between McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans. I remember that he said to me, “As long as you keep trying to copy McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans all your gigs will be bad.”

He kept me focused on doing whatever the process is where you gather materials. At a certain point you have to hope that the materials take on a life of their own and generate your own personal space. But you have to really want that and kind of work to it. You can’t force it because in a way that’s part of nature. It can’t be forced. But you have to actively do something and then stand back and allow it to happen.

One of the things that stood out to me about The Core Trio was their taste in music and it made sense that they would work with someone like you because you have such wide ranging taste. In your downtime what kind of music do you listen to these days?

Well, I don’t really have any downtime (laughs). Not just because of the music. Life will just take over. When you get to this age you start really wanting to make sure your significant other and things like that are taken care [of]. Things change your priorities. But I listen to everything. I listen to a lot of world music, whether it’s African drum music or Indian classical music. I listen to the things I listened to growing up as a kid—[John] Coltrane, Monk. Today’s Neil Young’s birthday and I was just thinking about how unique of a songwriter and performer he is. I love Bill Withers, Stevie Wonder. It goes on and on. I listen to alternative rock. I’m really good friends with Chan Marshall of Cat Power. There was a period [when] I was listening to a lot of trip-hop.

But I mean basically to answer your question: everything. Today I was thinking I haven’t listened to any Pierre Boulez for years and I had a taste for maybe hearing some Boulez. In general, I’m a big fan of Bach. I’m a big fan of Chopin and Debussy. So I listen to a wide range of things. And I even sometimes like just listening to noise because it clears my head and makes me start kind of shaping the silence. My favorite thing to listen to, though, is silence, meditation. And to make music serves to silence the mind, so it can really soak in silence. There was a period I was listening to a lot of Arvo Pärt. I don’t know if you know him. I don’t really think of music in genre. I think of it as vibrations. And I listen, again, to as many different types of vibrations as I can.

You’re very spiritual. Even down to the titles of your albums, like Piano Sutras.

Well, everybody’s spiritual. Even if they don’t think of themselves as spiritual they have a spirit (laughs).

Is that something that you want people to take away from your music?

Yes. It’s part of my worldview. I think of myself as a kind of mystic-musician in the same sense that Coltrane was or Sun Ra was. I definitely come out of that tradition of jazz and mysticism combined. So, yeah, that’s definitely a part of my whole trip.


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