You could never accuse Matthew Shipp of treading water. The 44-year-old free jazz pianist from Wilmington, Delaware, may have grown up in a musical era dominated by Motown soul, disco and punk, but he chose a far less mainstream genre for his own career in music.
"Yeah, I listened to all the commercial stuff of the day when I was a kid," says Shipp in a telephone interview from Amsterdam, where he will play a couple of solo gigs prior to a two-date, four-gig stint with Guillermo Brown at Tel Aviv's Zappa Club. "I was into the Jackson Five. Any black American kid at that time was into them."
Shipp and Brown, who will play in Tel Aviv October 26 and 27, are about as artistically intimate as two performers can be. The pair have worked together for 10 years and are both members of the envelope-pushing David S. Ware Quartet, which in addition to the bandleader features bassist William Parker, who wowed large audiences at this year's Tel Aviv Jazz Festival. Brown is the drummer in Ware's outfit but will be comfortably ensconced behind a laptop at his and Shipp's upcoming Israeli shows, an indication that their performances here will not be of the traditional jazz variety.
While jazz purists may raise an eyebrow or two at the thought of an on-stage computer manipulating the sounds of traditional musical instruments, Shipp says we are all - wittingly or not - consumers of technologically enhanced music. "The innovators of music all synthesize different musics to their own personal vocabulary," he says, citing the varied artistic explorations of some of the free jazz movement's founding fathers. "Albert Ayler played spirituals and marches and jazz standards. Cecil Taylor, who I was influenced by, played [Duke] Ellington, [Thelonious] Monk and twentieth century classical music, and Ornette Coleman played Charlie Parker. So, for me, music is a melting pot into which you can bring anything you want." Despite the fluid definition of free jazz itself, statements like this go some way toward explaining why Shipp balks at being called a "free jazz musician."
"I don't really know what 'free jazz' means," he says. "Like any musician, I'm just trying to take my influences and go somewhere else, and do something new. I think anyone in any [musical genre] is trying to do that."
Shipp started breaking away from commercial music and getting into all kinds of sounds, including jazz, in his teens. "I began listening to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, but I was always into funk, too. I also became a huge fan of Stevie Wonder and then David Bowie." At the same time, Shipp began exploring far more rarified musical strata. "All this was going on while I was getting into [legendary avant garde saxophonist] John Coltrane. Everything you hear has some effect on your psyche. I think it's safe to say that you are influenced by everything, including [material] you don't particularly like. They enter your psychic world somehow."
"Even when I got involved in my avant garde jazz there was always a strand of soul jazz in there, too. Like stuff that people like [veteran jazz pianist] Herbie Hancock play. I mean, Herbie's done so many different kinds of things, like his funk projects of the seventies along with abstract jazz. He was also into hip-hop. Interestingly, I made an album with a hip-hop guy called LP and he told me [1983 release] Rockit by Herbie Hancock was his introduction to hip-hop. I was always very aware of things like taking material from someone like Hancock, a post-bop jazz musician, and relating it to funk or hip-hop rhythms. It all gets mixed in together."
Next week's Zappa Club stint will be Shipp's first in Israel, and he may be surprised to learn that there is a growing progressive music scene here. Tel Aviv's Hagadah Hasmalit puts on regular avant garde events, as does Hazira in Jerusalem, with the likes of bassist Jean-Claude Jones and reedman Harold Rubin putting out thought-provoking material. The popular William Parker gig at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival in February also adds strengthens the notion that Israeli jazz consumers are becoming increasingly receptive to contemporary experimentation. The Shipp and Brown shows should, consequently, attract sizable audiences.
Like their musical inspirations, Shipp and Brown will certainly be mixing it together next week in Tel Aviv.
Matthew Shipp and Guillermo Brown will appear at Tel Aviv's Zappa Club on October 26 and 27 at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.