Matthew Shipp takes a surprisingly introspective turn on his latest solo piano album, continuing to discover new territory for his singular cosmic pianism
Within the voluminous catalog that pianist Matthew Shipp has created over the last three and a half decades, his solo piano work has charted a unique and compelling pathway for the evolution of the instrument’s vocabulary. On his latest album, Codebreaker, that path turns yet another unexpected corner, continuing to venture further while taking a surprising turn inward.
Due out November 5 on both CD & LP via drummer Whit Dickey’s label TAO Forms, Codebreaker finds Shipp in an uncharacteristically meditative state of mind. Though the language is unmistakably his own, the usual violent attacks, dense clusters, and insistent circularity are in short supply, replaced by harmonic nebulae that luxuriate in the mysterious resonances that Shipp conjures from the keyboard. As ever with the work of this consummate improviser, the intention had very little to do with it.
“I was actually shocked at how introspective the album was when I listened back to it,” Shipp admits. “If I try to dissect my motivations, which are not always conscious and which just happen on their own, I see myself really basking in harmony. I’m interested in trying to wring all of the harmonics from the piano that I possibly can, and with that in mind, any set of harmonics has a set of melodic fragments that are implied.”
Given that investigative impulse, Shipp himself could be viewed as the Codebreaker of the album’s evocative title. As always there’s wry humor to the name, as Shipp imagines a parallel between a World War II secret agent doggedly racing to crack an enemy cipher and himself sitting at the piano, puzzling over the music’s infinite enigmas. But the idea seems profoundly serious when considering the singular sonic vernacular he’s coined, making him one of the most distinctive pianists of his generation.
To that end, the titular Codebreaker could also refer to the listener, constantly challenged to unravel the web of influences, inspirations, experiences, and machinations that result in Shipp’s arcane creations. “I’m starting to see my way of piano playing as a code of sorts,” Shipp explains. “So it could be fun to try to break the code because there are so many things that go into it – most of which I’m not even aware of, even though I developed it. I know what I did to create this, but at the same time things happen that are beyond you if you dig deep enough.”
Not that such a cerebral approach is required to appreciate this stunning album, however. “You could just flow in the pool of it and get a sense of the code in general,” Shipp continues, “ as opposed to being analytical and pulling every component of it apart.”
Arriving a little more than a year since The Piano Equation, his last solo outing, Codebreaker is the first solo album Shipp has released since celebrating his 60th birthday last December. It’s one of several new sessions Shipp recorded during the coronavirus pandemic, which seems hardly to have slowed his release schedule. Upcoming or recent releases include duo and trio sets with Dickey and bassist William Parker and a new album by the collective quartet East Axis.
Shipp concedes that the landmark birthday may have something to do with the more introspective bent of the new album (“60’s not old, but it’s definitely not young,” he jokes), but it also continues a career-long investigation into the ways that his subversive approach to the piano connects with the instrument’s storied lineage. While the likes of Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra have been constant touchstones, one name that emerges when listening to Codebreaker, perhaps for the first time in Shipp’s discography, is that of Bill Evans.
“It’s very abstract and I don’t know if listeners will hear it, but I hear a line in my playing that’s trying to get into the trajectory that links Bud Powell’s piano playing to Bill Evans,” Shipp says. “That’s not a line you usually draw, but essentially Bill Evans is a Bud Powell-influenced pianist. All people who push notes down on the piano share a language, even though they’re all extremely different. I’m trying to dip into that collective mind, but at the same time, it’s filtered through me and is distinctly my thing. So it’s playing with, the dichotomy between the universal and the personal in the context of this pyramid where Bud Powell, Bill Evans, and, somehow, I fit together in a modern way.”
“Disc,” one of a number of Shipp compositions that envision a cosmic identity for the pianist, conveys the Evans influence most strongly. Midway through the piece Shipp’s recursive explorations settle into a tender wistfulness with a hint of a half-remembered standard, like a fragment of “Some Other Time” emerging from the subconscious and the lost again as the reverie moves on. The album begins in a similarly lush mode, with the tolling echoes of the title track.
“Spider Web” is aptly named for its weave of intricate, ensnaring lines, while “Code Swing” seems like a Cubist fragmentation of Bud Powell’s pointed bop phrasing. “Letter From the Galaxy” again heads for the interstellar with a floating grace untethered from gravity, though with a melancholy air that suggests this correspondent may not make it back to earth. “Green Man” breaks from the delicate mood, with disruptive clusters devolving into the pure percussive attack.
“Raygun” is hyper-focused on tightly clustered figures, while “Suspended” is evanescent in its dissipating, spectral harmonies. “Mystic Motion” feels dark and monolithic, “Stomp to the Galaxy” a post-modern stride deconstruction. “The Tunnel” exits on a resolute note, dense and searching.
Whether Codebreaker represents a new chapter in Shipp’s still-developing story or simply a rich, meditative digression remains to be seen – even for the pianist himself. “My playing both changes drastically and stays the same,” he concludes. “Is this where I’m at now? I’m not sure. I mean, the tape doesn’t lie. That’s where I was on that given day. But I like to think that things are moving at a fast pace, and on any given day I could be in a totally different headspace.”
RELEASE DATE: November 5th, 2021