Sharps & Flats

Downtown jazz pianist Matthew Shipp takes the A train.

Published May 16, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Last spring, following the release of his masterful disc "DNA," pianist Matthew Shipp announced he was "retiring" from recording as a session leader. His opus, he claimed, was complete.

You'll forgive me if I gave this announcement about as much weight as Billy Joel's overheated claims that he would retire from concert touring in early 1999. I didn't believe Joel because pop stars are, as a rule, greedy bastards. But I didn't believe Shipp for a different reason: He's among the most restless members of New York's avant-jazz scene. He plans festivals, leads a few different musical outfits and collaborates with like minds; "DNA," for example, was a project with bassist William Parker. There was no way that he wasnt going to get back into the game.

Sure enough, Shipp has returned in just over a year. And true to form, he's well extended: "Pastoral Composure" marks his "return" as a session leader; he is now also the head curator of something called "The Blue Series," an as-yet barely defined project sponsored by the boutique label Thirsty Ear. This album is the first installment of "The Blue Series."

Astute listeners will notice right off that "Pastoral Composure" is a departure for Shipp. For starters, the album begins with a taut snare sound from drummer Gerard Cleaver. The beat marks a break from the drumless duos and trios Shipp has led over the past several years. In fact "Pastoral Composure" features a honest-to-goodness jazz quartet (Shipp, Cleaver, bassist Parker and trumpeter Roy Campbell). The presence of a more traditional band seems to mean a more traditional recording. In places, Shipp sounds like he could be performing on a bandstand with a classic '60s and '70s avant-garde jazz group like the Dewey Redman Quartet. "Visions," with Parker's walking bass line and Shipp's bebop chordings, is almost the stuff of the classic Blue Note label, save the discordant splurges. And his solo version of Duke Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss" is just this side of reverential.

But, while Shipp has the chops and the melodic sensibility to show up on Lincoln Centers stage, he's too committed to the notion of an alternative to ever sound mainstream. Throughout "Pastoral Composure," Shipp's dark sensibility remains firmly in place. He throws his densely packed note clusters all over the room and pounds out rumbling chords over Parker's bowed invocations. "Gesture," the album's first track, features Shipp's slightly discordant tones set against Campbell's ominous, minor-key lines. Elsewhere, a low-toned rendition of "Frere Jacques" recalls the ominous beauty of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" from "DNA." And the album's title track is more scene-setting than a fully realized song, with Shipp and Parker rumbling off together as Cleaver mallets his cymbals and Campbell bleats out a lead line.

In Billboard earlier this spring, Shipp insisted that "Pastoral Composure" would be his last record as a leader. Right. And Billy Joel's Millennium Concert might be the last time he performs "Piano Man." The difference is, I couldn't care less if Joel never played again. But it would be a shame if Shipp stopped leading musicians in the charge against orthodoxy.

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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