Monday, April 16, 2012

Matthew Shipp Storms Pittsburgh

I was happily surprised on Saturday night when I walked into the gallery at the First Unitarian Church and saw the sizable crowd for the Matthew Shipp show. Meaning there was close to 50 people there. That might not sound like much but when you compare it to the crowd for a typical free/avant garde show, which you can often count on one hand, this was a success.

I had been geeked and eagerly awaiting this show since I heard about it a few months ago. (Not to toot my own horn but I feel like I was something of a catalyst because I got Matt in touch with Manny who booked it, since the pianist had lost his phone number.) But seeing a sea of faces - both young and older - in the audience was encouraging. It made me wish I had printed up handbills about this blog to get some sort of a network going.

Honestly I've heard nearly all of Shipp's recent albums but can't connect titles with tunes precisely, so this is going to be something of an overview of the evening. Perhaps, I should just say this:

It was a really, really good show. Trust me.

That's probably not even funny as you're reading it, so.... onward...(to borrow a Mort Sahl-ism).

The trio made their way to the stage and immediately launched into a tune that had a boppish feel to the melody even though the tempo was free and floating. For most of the evening, drummer Whit Dickey was staring down towards his snare drum, without needing to look at his arms or the rest of his kit. A few times he started swaying his head, though, getting caught up in the music. What he played never turned into excessive free clatter, but kept it flowing and taut. Bassist Michael Bisio periodically took a whack at his open strings. He was sometimes hard to hear clearly, so this could have been done out of frustration or plain old punctuation. Hard to tell. There were several times throughout the night where he leaned his bass back at an angle and struck the strings that way. I think he was being miked, so another thought is that he didn't want to overdrive the p.a.

And then there was Mr. Shipp. His arms move at the piano in a way that it looks like they're slipping off the keys, like he's brushing off dust. It's a look that contrasts with the rich sound he produces, that has really come to encompass all manner of styles - Monk-like angularity, the bop phrasing, an almost classical sense of melody (which makes perfect sense because that's what he played before jazz). Briefly, he dug into a piano melody that had a strong vocal quality to it, meaning it sounded like an actual voice.

The trio played two sets, each one about 45 minutes. Both included a few minutes where the free flowing sound got a little noodly, but both times, it didn't last too long and they snapped back into something tight. In the first set, Bisio did an amazing bowed solo, moving all over the instrument, including some great metallic squeaks that came from bowing the tail piece. That set also included snatches of "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Someday My Prince Will Come," though I have to admit, I only thought I heard the former and completely missed the latter. (I don't doubt it though because Shipp has recorded "Prince.")

The second set was even more charged up, with the dense and driving "The New Fact" kicking things off. Dickey took a solo during a later piece that had the approach similar to Rashied Ali, going in multiple directions, with snare rolls and cymbal crashes intersecting with power from the rest of his kit. Shipp's minor, doomy take on "Frere Jacques" was pulled out too, which sounds stronger in person than it has on disc, most likely because it doesn't put as much attention on the source material. There was an adolescent boy in the audience who was clearly grooving during this set - which offers proof that this music is accessible to listeners who keep their minds and ears open.

Shipp's 2009 album Harmonic Disorder ends with a track called "When the Curtain Falls on the Jazz Theatre" which I recall has a pretty heavy series of pounding chords (making it a bold and somewhat satirical statement together with the title). Can't say for sure since my copy of Harmonic is buried in a pile somewhere, but that might have been the final piece the trio played. And they received a standing ovation for the whole performance. I hope to see more of these appreciative clappers at other shows like this. Shoot - I want to see more shows like this!

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