Pianist Matthew Shipp (left) and bassist Michael Bisio (right) are coming to Pittsburgh tomorrow night (that's Wednesday, April 1) and performing at the First Unitarian Church at Ellsworth and Morewood Avenues. I talked to Matthew a couple weeks ago, and parts of the conversation are appearing tomorrow in Pittsburgh City Paper as part of a bigger article about shows happening here this month. Considering how the show is tomorrow, and how Matt only gets a few good quotes in, I figured I'd run the whole interview here. Matt has a bit of a reputation as being a firebrand but he's always been nothing but nice to me. Plus, his performances are amazing. He and Michael came to town last fall as a duo and it was astounding. So if a few more people are motivated to check them out based on this, that will be a good thing.
Q: So did I read that you have an album coming out on ESP-Disk?
It’s the sax player’s CD [Polish tenor saxophonist Mat Walerian] but they put my name on it because it’s his first cd. And I have an Ellington album [To Duke] out too on a French label, Rogue Art.
Q: But didn’t you say I’ve Been to Many Places might be your last album.
I know what I said. Don’t listen to what I say when it comes to recording. [Laughs} I meant it. But I’m still in this vortex of recording. I just can’t seem to get out of it.
Q: Is it still fun?
Yeah. I love the process but I would rather….
Q: Why’d you say it?
I’ve been with [the label] Thirsty Ear for a long time. And I’m not going to keep doing it forever where I keep putting out Thirsty Ear albums now. And probably, when I end my relationship with Thirsty Ear, unless something sweet comes along, where it’s involved with some patronage type of thing, I’m not gonna keep generating albums on other labels too. It’ll be obvious when it’s time. And I thought it was, but it wasn’t quite.
Q: How long you and Michael [Bisio, bass] been playing together?
The first gig with the trio was probably 5 to 6 years ago. We have a real feel for each other and a real friendship apart from the music. And a real feeling of destiny for this part of our life as far as being a team. We have a real sense of purpose with this. I feel it does show in the music.
Q: How does playing in a duo setting differ from the trio [which had included drummer Whit Dickey]?
It’s more intimate. The trio – this might sound weird – it’s more of a commercial jazz setting and people are more used to that format. You can kind of do it with the veneer that it’s a regular jazz trio no matter how modern the music is. And with the duo, you do away with that pretense altogether, just doing pure communication.
Q: How does playing with Michael compare with playing with William Parker?
It’s two different structures altogether. They both are utter monsters and they both are strong personalities. And they both are great bassists and they both are totally different also. i’ve been blessed to have both of them in my life. I feel very lucky.
Q: Do you still get to play with William?
I have breakfast with him most every day. I do stuff with him occasionally. I’ve done a couple different things that he’s been involved in, in the last year. I mean he’s so busy with his own stuff.
Q: So, the new album [The Gospel According to Matthew & Michael (Relative Pitch) with Bisio and violist Mat Maneri] – how spontaneous was that?
I want that to be the mystery. I’m not going to say. There are definitely some composed parts but it’s also a lot of improv. The percentage – I want to sit back and see what everyeone guesses with that….there’s definitely some compositions in there. This is an experiment for me. I want to see what people project on it. So I’m not going to answer that.
Q: Tell me about the Robert D. Bielecki grant.
In my case, he gives out different grants for different things but he just gave me a certain amount of money ($15,000) and told me to do whatever I want with it. I used some of this for this project. He’s a foundation and he gives away money to people he thinks will do something with it. And he happens to be a fan of my music. So that worked out well.
Q: How did it come together? Did you have to apply for it?
I knew he was doing a foundation and I put out feelers. I had seen him sneaking around at a couple of my concerts in the past. I started talking to him and he asked, If I gave this amount of money, what would you do with it? And I said, I don’t know… pay off credit card debts? [Laughs] But I used that money to fund this project. I haven’t done anything with Mat Maneri for a while, and I wanted to get back with him and do something with him also.
Q: How is touring going? Is your audience growing?
Every gig’s different in every place. We’ve had some really good turnouts for some things recently. I actually played at Jazz at Lincoln Center. It was the Ellington project. We had two sold out sets. I recently played in Washington DC and the organization we played had the biggest audience they ever had. But on any given night, you can have an off night. Nothing is a straight line in this. But we’ve been doing pretty well on the road.
Q: How are shows in Europe?
I’m not going to say it’s dried up. But it’s not as rich as it once was. But yeah it’s cool.
Q: A few days ago, you started a debate on Facebook at the San Francisco Jazz Festival.
Oh, that’s still going on. [Shipp’s issue was that a large number of performances during the festival were tributes to older artists or albums, like A Love Supreme, at the expense of current artists playing their own music]
Q: Well, here’s your chance to expound on it.
I would just say, ah… all jazz needs to be organic. And by organic I mean, just let people do what they do, whether it’s straight ahead, avant-garde…I would say there’s an over- degree of conceptualization going on in programming at major festivals that’s not conducive to having a beautiful organic evening. A lot of it seems to be very calculated – calculated for tourists. And in that way, it’s doesn’t seem to be a vibrant music. The way a lot of major festivals are presenting it, they got corporate sponsorships and it seems like they almost program things in ways that they think mirror the corporate sponsorship. There’s something so plastic about so much of it.
Q: That’s everything I wanted to ask. Is there anything you wanted to add?
I’m just trying to play some music. I’m trying to really be organic these days and try to do my thing.