Matthew Shipp: The 2004 Junkmedia Interview

by Troy Collins


Matthew Shipp                                                                                                            © Lorna Lentini


(This interview was originally published by Junkmedia.org, on September 27, 2004)

Widely known as a major figure in the free jazz world, pianist Matthew Shipp is perhaps just as well known for being the curator of Thirsty Ear’s experimental jazz imprint, the Blue Series. An accomplished artist in his own right, his most recent recording further bridges the gap between electronic music and acoustic jazz.

Harmony and Abyss is pianist Matthew Shipp’s latest album on Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series. An intriguing mix of live jazz improvisation with electronic studio manipulation, it continues the tradition Matt started with albums like Nu Bop and Equilibrium.

Matthew Shipp just returned from a tour and took some time out to talk with Junkmedia about the Blue Series, recording electro-acoustic jazz, DJs, what it’s like to be a producer, and a little chat about Cat Power.

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Troy Collins: How did your recent tour go?

Matthew Shipp: It was cool, a little grueling but, it was cool. It was a couple days with DJ Spooky, a couple days with the David S. Ware quartet and a couple days with my trio with William Parker and Gerald Cleaver. It was a different line-up every night.

TC: I wasn’t sure if it was going to be some sort of Montreal jazz festival style tour where you would play each night with a totally different line-up, playing pretty much everything you’ve ever done.

MS: I think that would be fun though, to play with someone different every night.

TC: I realize this is old hat for you, but is there any way to briefly tell of your involvement with Thirsty Ear and how you came to be the curator for their experimental jazz imprint: The Blue Series?

MS: Well, in a concise way, I’m a jazz pianist but one who is very idiosyncratically focused on a certain genre of jazz and I’ve been a jazz pianist all my life, but I’m very open to all kinds of things. As a jazz pianist I was approached by Henry Rollins to record for his label 2-13-61 records in the early nineties. He had a deal with Thirsty Ear who was distributing his label, so I met Peter Gordon (who owns Thirsty Ear) through Henry. When Henry’s label kind of was discontinued Peter and I had already stuck up a relationship so by that time Peter asked me to record for Thirsty Ear directly, which I did an album: DNA. Then he decided to start a jazz part of the label and asked me to be the curator. Hence the Blue Series.

TC: With the Blues Series, do people petition you for projects or do you seek out particular artists?

MS: Yeah people send stuff in, but I don’t think we’ve signed anybody. Our offices aren’t connected, I’m in New York and they’re in Connecticut, so I don’t even hear the stuff. They listen to it and sometimes they mention it if there’s something decent and even then I can’t recall ... we’ve talked to several people and almost done something with unsolicited material, but it never happened. But most of all, when the label started out it was my circle of people, William Parker and Matt Manieri and people like that who were recording and I was very conscious of the fact that the label couldn’t continue in that way. So, we started branching out slowly but surely and we brought in Tim Berne, somebody I’ve known for years, but he’s not exactly in my circle. And then from there we just kept branching out more and more. Spring Heel Jack was already on Thirsty Ear and I found out they were huge jazz fans and then the idea of that collaboration came about. Antipop Consortium kind of searched me out, not so much for the Blue Series, but they had wanted to record something with me for a while. And DJ Spooky is someone I used to talk to on the street or run into at parties occasionally and we had been talking for years about doing something. Everybody that’s come in has come in from a different angle. E-LP has the same manager as Antipop, so when they did something, he decided he wanted to as well. So, it started with my circle of people but slowly branched out from there.

TC: Have you ever acted as “producer” where you’ve deliberately put performers together to hear what different collaborations would sound like?

MS: Not really. There is a situation right now with an album that’s not done yet and it’s not so much myself that did it but Peter Gordon.

TC: What one is that?

MS: Oh, it’s a record coming out, it just started with Dave Lombardo (drummer for Slayer) and DJ Spooky and now Jack Dangers from Meat Beat Manifesto is the producer and Vernon Reid is playing guitar on it. So that kind of happened. But usually a person just steps forward with a concept and tries to find some other musicians that could add to the concept. So, it’s not really so much I wonder what such and such playing together would sound like. It’s more that this person has a concept and who can we bring in here to realize his concept.

TC: Besides the DJ spooky project you just mentioned what else is slated for release this year?

MS: We were supposed to do a box set of live David S. Ware concerts and that was going to be released this year but getting one of the tapes has proven a little more difficult than we thought. So, Harmony and Abyss is the last thing this year for the Blue Series. Next year we have slated the Mike Ladd project that has Vijay Iyer, Guillermo Brown, Roy Campbell and Andrew Lamb all playing on it. Then the David S. Ware live box set, the DJ Spooky/Dave Lombardo/Vernon Reid with Meat Beat Manifesto producing it and then Meat Beat Manifesto himself is doing a CD that Craig Taborn and I will be playing on. Actually, Peter Gordon of Thirsty Ear will be playing flute on it. Occasionally he pulls that out and dusts it off a little. There is another secret project that we haven’t even started recording, I shouldn’t even mention it.

TC: Sure you can ... how secret is secret?

MS: Oh man, until we step in the studio I shouldn’t even ... it could fall apart at the last minute. There’s also a William Parker album coming out next year with a Japanese Pianist Eri Yamamoto, she’s a friend of mine. She’s a straight-ahead pianist and William Parker’s going to do a straight-ahead album. So those are the major projects for next year.

TC: I was fortunate enough to catch William Parker live for two nights in Montreal a few months ago. We caught the tail end of an underground jazz festival that precedes their big mainstream jazz festival. Luckily, we saw him with Roy Campell’s Pyramid trio and William Parker’s own quartet.

MS: Yeah right, Mauro I think is the name of the guy that puts on that series. He’s in that band, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. We actually wanted to record that quartet again, that’s the group he recorded with on the O’Neal’s Porch album. But I think that group might do another album on AUM Fidelity.

TC: Yeah, I spoke to Steve Joerg (of AUM Fidelity) and he told me that they are planning on doing another studio recording this year with them. Outside of jazz, I was wondering what musicians you derive inspiration from say from pop, electronic, hip-hop or other forms unrelated to jazz. Are there any particular musicians that tweak your interest more than others?

MS: Well I have my favorite jazz musicians, but I don’t know how to answer that question. There are so many artists ...

TC: Well then, anyone currently, like right now, who are you listening to right now?

MS: Hmnn, right now? I can’t say that there’s an artist I’m so intrigued by right now in the way that I used to be. I would say that I “check things out.” What have I checked out in the last year or two that I’ve really paid attention to? Fourtet, I checked them out pretty recently but I haven’t really had time to listen to music. I just went through a period where I went back to Bud Powell, that is one of my favorite pianists. I just haven’t had time.

TC: You know that’s not that unusual really. I’ve heard other musicians say that, as crazy as it seems that a musician doesn’t have time to listen to music. Tim Berne once said that he used to listen voraciously to music when he was younger and then once he learned how to play, he just stopped.

MS: Right well, sometimes when I was young, I used to sit up in my room with earphones on and listen to records from like nine at night to five in the morning just sitting straight in a chair. Straight you know, and maybe taking a break to go to the bathroom. Just one record after another. I used to listen for hours and hours, I could just sit down and concentrate. It’s just like, after awhile you’ve got your own music you know. I’m trying to think, as far as really recently I probably haven’t been checking that much stuff out. I go through periods. A couple of years ago I was listening to Cat Power.

TC: (laughing)

MS: Well, she’s a friend of mine.

TC: No, you see, that’s actually one of the last comments I had for the interview, but ... my editor insisted that I tell you this little anecdote about Cat Power. My editor had read an interview with you and at the time he was a die-hard free-jazz fan and loved listening to you. And he read this interview with you where you mentioned that you were currently listening to Cat Power’s Moon Pix. And so he went out and picked up Moon Pix and he hasn’t listened to any jazz since then ...

MS: (laughing) Oh God, Oh my God.

TC: So he switched over completely to rock music, so you lost one.

MS: That’s really funny, I’ve got to stop promoting her. Wow, that’s really intense, I’ve got to tell her that the next time I see her. Wow, as far as really current stuff, Fourtet might be the last really current stuff I’ve been listening to. A couple years ago I was listening to Portishead a lot, but that’s not current. I hear stuff in passing, but as far as sitting home and checking stuff out I don’t really have time. Like a few years ago I was listening to Dr. Octagon, like, all the time. That was one of my favorite albums for a couple of years. I’ve been listening to some really old stuff actually, like I pulled out The Chronic, which I hadn’t listened to for years. You know, Dr. Dre, I was diggin’ that, but I’ve been listening to some Indian classical music too. I just can’t think of that much really current stuff that I’ve been listening to. I’ve been meaning to buy Madvillain and I’m going to check out a couple broken beat recordings. I’m just interested in what they’re doing. But basically, to answer your question I haven’t been listening to a lot of things at home.

TC: Do you ever notice a difference in the way that you listen to jazz? As in music with improvisation versus more structured stuff, like popular music?

MS: Right, well if I’m going to listen to a really heavy jazz CD I don’t want to listen to it in passing. I want to sit down and give the music my full attention, not that other types of music don’t deserve your full attention. That’s the problem, finding the time. Unless of course music is your hobby. For instance, I have hobbies that I like to do to unwind. If not, I’d probably end up killing somebody. The unwinding process is something you need to survive.  Music is not really that for me because I do it for a living. If I had another job and music was my hobby, my relaxation, my way to unwind I would come home and find time, a way to make time to listen. Like I said, when I listen to some hardcore improvisational thing, I really want to be able to sit down and give it my full attention.

TC: A lot of the releases on the Blue Series label occupy that very tenuous cross-over area. Do you ever envision while you’re recording that stuff how people are going to listen to it?

MS: I have a concept in my head that I want it to be able to function in a way where somebody can just sit down and if they want to get a really deep experience and be able to close their eyes and take in a lot of stuff, then I want it to be very rich in that way. And at the same time if somebody just wants it for ambience, I probably have some concept of how it could function in that way too.

TC: You can hear that. How different pieces seem to cater to different moods, especially on the new album.

MS: Usually when I’m recording music, I’m more focused on recording music that we’re really going to be listening to though.

TC: How are the recordings done? Since you primarily play acoustic piano and the electronics are usually performed by someone else, is that stuff recorded live or is it added afterwords?

MS: No, it’s mainly done in post-production. Sometimes I do pre-production work, and I’m a little involved with that even though I have a guy that’s hands on, I’m conceptually involved with some of the electronic decisions. Sometimes we do pre-production and bring beds into the studio and then go back and do more stuff to it in post. So sometimes it’s done after and sometimes it’s done before, or during and after.

TC: So, when it comes to electronics are you more old school or do you like newer equipment.

MS: Uh I’m a pianist (laughing) I have trouble figuring out how to work a tape machine. I’m not really a knob type of guy.

TC: Well when you played on David S. Ware’s electronic album (Corridors and Parallels) you played a Korg, right?

MS: Yeah, that’s was David’s synthesizer and I just set it on the strings setting and played it almost like it was a piano. There are people that know infinitely more about programming synthesizers than I do.

TC: I had read some interviews with you prior to this and came across one in All About Jazz where you were asked about your feelings on DJs as musicians and whether or not you felt that DJ improv. was as complex as jazz improv. You kind of democratically side-stepped that question at the time. And since that was earlier on in your involvement with this genre, I was wondering whether or not you have anything to add to that since then?

MS: It’s not really a question I entertain, because I’m pretty pragmatic. I just try to deal with whatever needs to be done. To sit around and have an abstract concept about whether this guy is a musician or not because he’s playing with records, there are obviously sensibilities you have to have to be good at it. To make up an abstract category in your mind that this is a musician and this is not, doesn’t mean anything to me. If DJs are part of culture and a part of how music is made and I’m dealing with that structure, then ... I don’t mean to sidestep the question again, but I don’t really have a judgmental approach to that. Other than that, the DJ is an entity and there’s things that they do and I’m involved with them and there’s things we’re trying to do together then I close my mind down as far as having a judgment. To me that’s like sitting around and having an argument about who’s a better pianist – Art Tatum or Thelonious Monk. You know, Monk might be a stronger artist to you but Tatum’s arpeggiois are cleaner. I just don’t really care. But I respect the DJs craft. Being a DJ is obviously different than being an improvisational jazz musician and I just let both of them be in their own space and be what they are.

TC: I assume that you’re staying with Thirsty Ear for the foreseeable future?

MS: Yeah, unless somebody offered me $500,000 (laughing). No, I have a really good relationship with them, it’s been perfect for me.

TC: I guess that’s really all I have for you.

MS: Cool, OK, when is this going to run?

TC: As soon as my horrible transcription skills get involved and I can get it off to the editor that doesn’t like jazz anymore.

MS: Right, right (laughing).

TC: And as soon as it’s posted I can send you a link to it.

MS: Now what is it about Cat Power that makes you not like jazz, that’s what’s so interesting. Did he ever explain that?

TC: You know, I don’t know, I’ll have to ask him.

MS: That story is definitely one for the ages, that’s crazy man.

© Troy Collins

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