On his gorgeous new New Orbit (Thirsty Ear/Blue Series), pianist Matthew Shipp is clearly thinking about how jazz can remain grounded in its origins and still say something to contemporary ears. His solution is to open up the music to new sonic influences and compositional strategies from outside sources. “As an African-American composer, I had to come to terms with Ellington, the free-jazz tradition, and aspects of certain classical music,” he explains over the phone from his New York apartment. “So I’m trying to deal with all of those things as they’ve influenced me but still be distinctly original and myself. All those influences are vast, panoramic things, and a lot of responses can happen. The Ellington universe alone is so rich and so big that there’s a myriad of responses to it. If you look at pianists who are influenced by Ellington, they range from Randy Weston to Cecil Taylor. So one person like Ellington can engender an infinite number of responses that are completely different.”
Shipp’s personal synthesis of a wide spectrum of influences results in one of the most fully realized recordings of his prolific career. New Orbit features distinctly jazz instrumentation, with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, bassist William Parker, and drummer Gerald Cleaver joining the pianist. But his expansive use of his sources prevents this from being in any way a traditional jazz album. Shades of Ellingtonian color, echoes of sonorities cribbed from jazz pianists like Cecil Taylor, Randy Weston, and Art Tatum, and hints of classical composers like Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg weave a pianistic lattice around which the rest of the band intertwines. Shipp marshals different combinations of instruments — including solo piano, a trumpet-bass duo, a pianoless trio, and the full quartet — to vary the color and texture of the music. The progression from one section to another erects a sturdy architecture grounded at either end by the “New Orbit” theme. The structure isn’t exactly symmetrical, but the sense of narrative flow and connectedness between the parts of the suite suggests there’s a very sophisticated compositional talent at work.
“I wanted to develop a suite that was open-ended and organic,” Shipp explains, “yet very controlled and planned out in a certain way. The piece is meant to be an open-ended ambient type of free-jazz meditative space.”
Shipp wrote the suite for trumpeter Smith, with whom he’d played in the ’80s in a quartet with Parker and drummer Steve McCall. More recently, Smith had subbed for Hugh Ragin in Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory, and Shipp resolved to record with him at the first opportunity. Here Smith creates an eerie beauty that’s critical to the suite’s spirituality. Few trumpeters can match his eloquent silences, or give single notes such emotional power. The heavy low tones he layers over Shipp’s variations on the “New Orbit” theme soften and console the music’s longing. On “Chi,” he plays with time, and his control of the attack and decay and timbre of his notes makes them flicker and waft over the rhythm section. On “Maze Hint” and “Paradox Y,” he’s a master of mystery and ambiguity, leaving lines hanging in suspense or splitting notes into tonally ambiguous sound. Yet with one pure note he can offer a brief glimpse of ravishing beauty that melts away and leaves the air throbbing.
Shipp, Parker, and Cleaver have all worked together in a variety of settings, so they form a tight unit that can provide elliptical commentary and embellishment or drive an idea home. On “Chi” they gradually loosen the moorings of the composition and let the music fan open; it grows more expansive until it crests and slowly folds in upon itself again. Parker provides the heartbeat pulse of “U Feature” as Smith and Cleaver lock together in dialogue. Parker’s stunning unaccompanied solo on “Orbit 3,” with its shivering, shimmering bowing and double stops, is a highlight.
This is the fourth release in Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, of which Shipp is A&R director. He’s finding improvisers who are similarly open to blending new influences into jazz — a kind of progressive counterbalance to the conservative slant that prevails in major labels. Bassist Parker and violinist Mat Maneri have already recorded for the series; releases by saxophonist Tim Berne, trumpeter Roy Campbell, and pianist Craig Taborn are slated for later this year.
“What we’re looking for in the Blue Series,” Shipp concludes, “is organic players who have an open-ended sound or an open-ended thing at the top of their playing or composing. They act as vast funnels of influences, then file it into their nervous systems and personalities. The beauty of it comes out of the organic quality of it. I think there’s something very healthy about that.”