FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004


K. Leander Williams


Before the world,
before the beginning.
Just like was heard
Before the word

Phineas Mello

Bill Evans still said it best: Jazz is not a what, but a how. In order to understand what he meant by that, though, you have to jettison much of what the world tells you about art in particular and music in general, about its being intrinsically revolutionary or traditional, highbrow or lowbrow, old or new. Since music is a language system with its own undeniable grammar, syntax and vocabulary, it can only suggest things; it cannot be them. Simply stated, the key to any musical style has much more to do with the musician's nuts-and-bolts choices (how would syncopation work here?, can I use those voicings?) than it does with what people do with it once those choices have been made.

As any working musician knows, however, audiences do have an impact. Take, for instance, the people who applaud at the end of the first and last tracks of this, Matthew Shipp's inaugural collection of solo piano performances. (Incidentally, those of you who own Shipp's debut solo recording, Symbol Systems, might be surprised to learn that it was actually recorded months after the material contained herein.) Although it is likely that many of those in attendance would have applauded with even less urging, we can pretty much discern from the response that no one had to be coaxed. Had they heard something new? It's also quite possible that many had once upon a time applauded for Cecil Taylor or Keith Jarrett, two of Shipp's pianistic predecessors whose prodigious solo piano legacies still cast an imposing shadow over the genre. With this in mind at the onset of the show, the question that awaited Shipp was as loaded as it was aged: Is it possible to hold the audience's attention while making demands of my own?

If Before The World is any indication, to Shipp, the answer comes down to one thing: selflessness. "On one level, as a performer you're trying to give yourself over to the music", he said later, contemplating the challenge. (In addition to leading his own ensembles, Shipp also functions as the spinal cord in groups led by multi-reed instrumentalists Roscoe Mitchell and David S. Ware.) "But even though sometimes l'd like to think l'm so concentrated and focussed that performing means simply letting the music breathe," he continued, "I know it's more complicated than that. Making music is a way of being in the world; so, of course, your environment has an effect on you. Since the audience is there, it has to be considered a part of that environment.

So then, how does recording live differ from the studio? Before The World contains examples of both contexts, yet musically, the only disparity seems to be one of scale. Many of the stately chords, pointillistic sprints and ringing lower and middle register clusters of the live tracks ("#1" and "#5") can also be heard in the compact pieces that make up the album's center. Only the approach changes: In concert, Shipp builds upon each fresh idea, adding new layers and textures until a wholly new creature becomes audible. This is in marked contrast to the terse embellishment of "#2" or "#3," in which the pianist sits down with a motif and toys with it, stretching the initial strain without ever allowing it to move beyond recognition.

"I feel that there are two very distinct psychological spaces you occupy when going from one setting to the other," says Shipp. "Firstly, if you're making an album, you have to have a concept of the album you want to make. An example (of this] might be someone like (classical pianist] Glenn Gould, who stopped performing at one point and made his records by cutting and pasting his takes together. In my playing I see the two sides as separate but part of the same whole. It's like the cells in your body - each one is a complete thing but contributes to something bigger."

"I'm trying to allow my solo thing to evolve organically over time," Shipp says when asked the significance of the title. "It ties in with the way anything might develop from a sort of blank slate - how one distinct entity or matrix can birth something equally distinct. On some level it has something to do with the way I practice: I actually work on various fundamentals and exercises instead of performing for myself in private. Since this was my first solo concert, to get my hands really accustomed to using the whole piano I actually worked on some things from the classical literature - baroque stuff mostly. That got me thinking in some new directions, and now I really want to work at it."

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