Matt Shipp, free-jazz-piano hero of the Lower East Side, says his new CD, DNA, released this week, will be his last. After a frenzied period during which he has released fourteen discs since 1992 under the various rubrics Matt Shipp Duo, Matt Shipp Trio, Matt Shipp Quartet, etc., etc., the 38-year-old Shipp declares he is retired from making records.
"What's the use -- I've got too many sides out as it is," remarks the bespectacled, slightly built author of such alchemically titled works as The Multiplication Table, Symbol Systems, and Critical Mass, as he sips nonalcoholic beer at 2A, the Avenue A hangout around the corner from the tiny studio apartment where he lives with his wife. "I don't feel the psychological need to continually flood the market with this material. Besides, I have finished my primary opus. My temple is structurally complete. To add to it now would be merely ornamental. A patching of concepts. Embellishment for the sake of the cash advance. That's a kind of cynicism I'd rather not get into."
Mid-career "retirements" by jazzmen are not unprecedented. Sonny Rollins, at the height of his unmatched powers, withdrew from the scene for almost two years, during which time he was discovered "woodshedding" tunes like "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" upon the windswept walkways of the Williamsburg Bridge. While admiring the Mohawk-headed Rollins's fierce unconformity, Shipp does not plan on following in the saxophone colossus's footsteps because "it would be kind of heavy, getting a piano up there." But even if Shipp plans to continue playing club dates (mostly as a sideman with the stellar David S. Ware Quartet) "to pay the bills," there is a rush of aesthetic uplift to be gleaned from his decision to "shut up for a while and smell the grass." Indeed, in a culture of glut, where a little reticence qualifies as a blow for creative freedom, Matt Shipp emerges as one of an increasingly rare breed: a legitimately iconoclastic Lower East Side bohemian artist.
Then again, Shipp has always been a serious sort, in a deep-blues-self-referential kind of way. At age 12, growing up an only child in Wilmington, Delaware, Shipp says, he prayed so much that his Episcopalian pastor became concerned. The pastor told Shipp's father, a police captain and lay minister, that the young musician was in danger of becoming "a religious fanatic." Although Shipp continues to read transcendental philosophers like Emanuel Swedenborg and Meister Eckhart for fun and considers himself "possibly the leading twelfth-century-Christian-mystic jazzman below 14th Street," this obsessional religious fervor was soon transmuted to the piano, which Matt began practicing fourteen hours a day, seven days a week.
It was in this "dreamworld" period of adolescent hermeticism that Shipp (and his lifelong imaginary friend-alter ego Mr. Chromosome, "a young black mathematician-geneticist") began to fuse the highly disparate elements that make him perhaps the most provocative, if narrowly appreciated, pianist of the nineties. As archly romantic as he is archly angular, his work can sound like a resourceful, if sometimes maddeningly abstruse, D.J.'s montage of nineteenth- and twentieth-century modernism -- a transit through the psychotropia of Scriabin, the hardtack note clusters of Cecil Taylor, reconditioned riffs swiped from (unaccountably) adored seventies stadium bands like Rush and Styx, and onward to a ton of Ellington ("He's like Plato or someone"). It's an often difficult style that Shipp says made him a perfect candidate for the New York free-jazz scene, "the most despised and lowest-selling of musical idioms."
Indeed, what is often called "free" or "avant-garde" -- the aggressively envelope-shattering music pioneered in the sixties by people like John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Sun Ra -- is considered by many to be useful only for the quick clearing of crowded rooms. To Shipp, however, "outside" jazz's hard angles and gut cries (Jimi Hendrix is counted as a key free player) constitute "an ever-expanding universalist pooled language . . . a glossolalia" approaching that of pre-Babel times, "a potentially endless process into the unknown" in line with what's described in Alfred North Whitehead's Process & Reality, another favorite book.
Therein lies the pianist's main bitch with the "hopelessly decadent" major jazz labels and the mainstream state of the music in general. "It's a death industry," propounds Shipp, no slouch with a jazz polemic. "If you're dead, that's good, because then you can be repackaged, but if you're trying to build a music, like it took Monk twenty years to build, forget that." Coming in for special abuse is the well-tailored personage of Wynton Marsalis, whom Shipp describes as "a Reaganist neoconservative . . . an academic . . . a roadblock." These sound like fighting words, and the usually mild-mannered Shipp has been party to several dustups over the years, most famously squaring off with the occasionally pugnacious cultural critic and Marsalis confidant Stanley Crouch after an awards dinner. For his part, Crouch, no fan of Shipp's "European music," says "there wasn't going to be any great glory for me putting my foot in his ass."
Aesthetic feistiness has not exactly made Shipp rich. Appearing on small- to no-profile indie labels located from Switzerland to Woodmere, Long Island, and sending out disarmingly boyish press releases handwritten in his looping scrawl, Shipp rarely tops 3,000 sales per disc. Last year, he finally cleared enough to keep him from day gigs in the scholarly section at Barnes and Noble or serving as an art-school model, a natural job for Shipp, given his cuddly offhand sexual allure. Once "suicidal" after a bad performance, Shipp now feels he's "made a name" big enough to maintain his material needs. "You know, my rent's only $500; I keep my expenses low. . . . It's the usual Lower East Side artist dilemma: torn between the romance of the underground and desperate, urgent craving for recognition."
As million-dollar condos go up around him, he feels like "a jazz fossil," but there are still those in the neighborhood who enjoy his passions. Just a few weeks ago, Lenny Kaye, the grand boho guitarist of the Patti Smith Group, asked Matt if he was interested in playing with Patti. Shipp wanted to, "but the studio was in New Jersey and it was going to be at night. By night, I'm pretty stressed out. All I want to do is relax and read like, maybe, Whitman or Eckhart and watch WCW or WWF on TV. . . . I'm a pretty big Stone Cold fan, you know." Shipp also is encyclopedic on seventies half-hour TV, but his true mania is pro boxing, which he's written about in fanzines as being similar in mind-set to jazz; he often fantasizes himself in the ring while playing. It's indicative of his florid inner life that when his favorite, Michael Spinks, faced Mike Tyson, the musician dressed in a suit and tie while listening to the fight on the radio.
Shipp says he's known for some time that the current DNA (released by the New York-based indie Thirsty Ear) would be his final musical statement. "Working through all these records, I always knew where I was in the project, what fraction of the whole I'd completed. I'm just organized that way," Shipp says. Certainly there is symmetry in the fact that that disc is a duo with the bassist William Parker, a fellow Lower East Sider (and former Cecil Taylor sideman) with whom Shipp has forged an enduring collaboration. A deep-souled man who can sometimes be seen wheeling his bass through the rain on Avenue B, Parker recalls, "Matt just came up to me, out of the blue -- this young guy, said, 'Here,' and handed me this pile of music. . . . I looked it over and said, 'I can work with this.' " Asked about Shipp's "retirement," Parker smiles: "Matt's got a lot of ideas."
This said, DNA, an off-angled quilting of Shipp's usual moody fury, seems an appropriately apocalyptic capstone. After an hour of staccato yet never un-tuneful intellectuality (including a barbed-wire reading of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," sounding as if it's playing in the head of a mortally wounded soldier at Bull Run), Shipp exits with a straight, heartfelt "Amazing Grace." "To give thanks," the former altar boy notes.
Tonight, on the Lower East Side, Matt Shipp is practicing at a studio on Avenue A. His apartment is too small for a piano, so he comes here and lays down his $8 an hour. With the lights of the massive Village View apartment complex twinkling out the window, the thin fingers of Shipp's surprisingly delicate hands spider across the keyboard, taking cues from a stack of tiny notebooks he almost always carries with him. "They're mostly note groupings, nothing I'd ever play onstage or on a record, just things I'm working on," Shipp says. "The idea is, play these things until I submerge the forms into the substrata of my unconscious mind. Then I might forget them, but down deep, in the foundation, they'll still be there." Shipp says this process, which he calls "meditative and regenerative," could take years, but then again, a musical temple is not built in a day.