A duo is such a specific format, and I’ve done a lot of them,” reflects Matthew Shipp, one of New York’s premiere improvisational pianists for the past 40 years, who’s worked with the likes of David S. Ware, Roscoe Mitchell, William Parker, Ivo Perelman, and many others. “I really relish the raw interaction of a duo. It’s kind of a discipline — a very specific thing. It can present a whole dramatic compositional puzzle.” And to be sure, he considers purely extemporaneous improvisation to be an act of composition as much as anything. It’s no accident that the pianist, associated with so-called free jazz for most of his life, sees Duke Ellington, a composer’s composer, as a key inspiration.
Ellington was a fortuitous touchstone for Shipp to bring to his recent collaboration with Arkansas-based saxophonist Chad Fowler on Old Stories, their new album of duets on Mahakala Music. For his part, Fowler brought to the sessions a longstanding fascination with Ellington sideman (and alto saxophone pioneer) Johnny Hodges, though, like Shipp, this is expressed obliquely through Fowler’s work with avant-garde luminaries like Alvin Fielder, Douglas Ewart, and Parker.
It was the latter bassist who indirectly brought Shipp and Fowler together. “I met Matt just last year at the Vision Festival, the free jazz event that William Parker and his wife run,” says Fowler. “I knew his music well, but I’d never met him in person. We ended up standing together, watching William Parker’s band.” Sensing they were kindred spirits, they immediately made arrangements for a session at Park West Studios in Brooklyn.
Indeed, the duets heard on Old Stories comprise their first real interaction. “I think I talked to him on the phone for two minutes about the logistics,” recalls Fowler. “We barely even said hello before we started. And I think it shaped the session. He was in there playing Ellington tunes when I arrived, warming up. Really swinging, beautiful ballads. And then we just started recording. We never discussed anything beforehand. By far the longest conversation we had ever had was the musical conversation in the studio that day.”
That suited Shipp just fine. “We just started,” he recalls. “Jim Clouse the engineer said, ‘Rolling,’ and that was it. After every track, we’d take a second and we’d look at each other. Then, ‘Are we on?’ ‘Yeah, you’re on.’ And we’d start again.” Having said that, Shipp notes that both players brought their musicianship to bear on every second, every beat. “You kind of just know, ‘Okay, we’ve done this, this and this, so it’s probably time to do something like this, texture-wise, because we haven’t covered that. That process takes on a life of its own, and it just flows from there. Like, whoever does the first attack, the other is thinking, ‘How is this piece going? What are we going to explore?’ And that information is conveyed instantly at the beginning. That takes a lot of experience and musicianship.”
The tracks that emerged reveal two acute compositional minds at work in real-time. “I consider myself a conceptualist and a musical thinker who is always going towards the coherence,” Shipp notes. “Even in what might be perceived as the most free form settings. Music is language, and any language has its own internal logic, its own internal waveform generating itself. If you’re telling a story, which is what jazz is supposed to be about, you’re dealing with a real internal language. And if it’s an honest expression, you’ll make sentences of sorts. Paragraphs.”
And, true to the album’s title, these stories are weathered and worn, owing to the century-old reference points both players rely on. Yet there’s tension in their contrasting approaches as well. “I get the sense that Chad’s played a lot of R&B,” says Shipp. “I hear the Southern aspects of his playing. I also hear a lot of the second generation avant garde. I play mostly with East Coast, New York style players, and even though he’s obviously capable of hanging in that realm, and does, he is a little different.”
Fowler fully embraces the Southern flavors he’s steeped in. “I grew up musically playing in Memphis with R&B bands, listening to Hi Records all the time. It used to be my goal to play sax the same way Al Green sings when he improvises. Even when playing completely raucous, noisy stuff, I think you can hear that I come from a blues sort of background.”
That, in turn, goes hand in hand with the respect both players have for the sounds of the jazz age, starting with Fowler’s choice of instrument. Unlike most alto players, he favors an archaic straight alto, which Rahsaan Roland Kirk called a “stritch,” and the similarly shaped saxello. “Having a weird instrument changes my mindset when I play, in a way that I think is good,” Fowler says. “It’s nice to think of it as not being a saxophone.”
And so, even amidst wailing, textural approaches, both players are capable of a lyricism that’s not always associated with free playing. “Chad’s a great musician — very responsive and sensitive. I hear a lot of Johnny Hodges in his playing,” says Shipp. “I asked him about that afterward, and he said that’s one of his favorite musicians. There’s a lot of Duke Ellington in my playing, especially when I use really elegant chord voicings, and I hear Chad responding to that.”
Which brings us back to the musical coherence of these exploratory recordings. As Fowler reflects, “To me, this session, more than anything I’ve ever done, feels like composed songs. And I literally mean songs, because there are melodies and form and development. The track called ‘Chapter 8,’ which is the only piece where I play the saxcello, really sounds like we’re reading written notes off a page.”
To Shipp, the title of the album and the chapters comprising it match the music perfectly. “It’s a narrative,” he says. “A novel of sorts. And even if your story is new, it’s a rearranging of elements. All the new stories are old, in some ways. We seem to have been prepared for it, somehow. It was a real delight. Between the freshness of a new encounter and being prepared, that balance is really there. That’s what makes it vibrant and exciting for me.”
Or, as Fowler puts it, “When you listen to it, it feels like we already knew each other, like we’re old friends, even though we had barely talked to each other before that. So it felt like the old shared stories that we tell, that reference events that neither of us has experienced.” ~ Alex Greene | Bandcamp
Expected Release Date: April 15, 2022