Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with New York-based jazz pianist Matthew Shipp about his role curating a jazz label, the day he found his musical voice and how living in New York City fueled him, creatively.
CP: What inspired you to start playing music?
MS: I was inspired by the organist at my parents' church. It was just very majestic religious music. I was awe-inspired by the majesty and beauty of ecclesiastic music on the organ. I wanted to play organ, and she told me to play piano. She was my first teacher.
CP: The organ has a very grandiose tone. Were you disappointed with the piano, when you started playing?
MS: Not really, because for some reason, it was put in my head that you start with piano before you go to organ. I never did make the transition. I just really liked the piano. I don't know why it followed that way, but it did, for whatever reason.
CP: Do you ever wish you'd made the transition to playing the organ?
MS: No, I don't think I'd change anything. Where you are is where you are. It's probably where you should be, on some level.
CP: You started playing jazz music at age 12. What attracted you to it?
MS: The medium was TV, which usually has a deadening effect on people's minds, but it had a good effect on me, in this case. I saw a couple of concerts on PBS with Ahmad Jamal and Nina Simone. That really turned my head.
CP: What was it? The pieces they were playing? How they were playing?
MS: It was the overall feel. I remember thinking it just seemed cool that Ahmad Jamal could sit down at the piano and play these runs. I thought, “Man, this is cool.” When I saw Nina Simone, it was this earthy, mysterious power that was very dark. That fascinated me, even though it scared me.
CP: When did you first start composing?
MS: I started probably around 15. I was trying to find a voice, but that took quite a while. I would say that process probably started pretty early on.
I remember I used to listen to Bill Evans and then sit down and try to do something completely in the spirit where I would cop a couple of things off their albums, a few measures. I would start with that and then try to do my own thing, within the spirit of the language.
The process started early, but as far as really coming into your own, it took quite a while.
CP: When did you feel like you'd found that voice?
MS: I was 23.
CP: That's very specific.
MS: It happened one day. It was in August or early September of 1983. I remember the day. I was doing a session with a friend, who was a sax player. We started playing, and even though I'd had glimpses of my voice before, this was the first time I could sit down and it flowed effortlessly. We taped it, and we were like, “What did we just do?” We were listening back to it, and we were like, “We have this whole new universe under our fingertips.”
CP: Was any of that connected to the friend you were playing with at the time? Did you consider that as a possibility?
MS: I had been looking for that (voice) for a long time. There was an element where the chemistry with him fostered it happening, but I'd had glimpses of it before. This was the first time it seemed to be at my fingertips. After that experience, I had this feeling of power, that I could sit down and do it again, if I wanted to, on any day.
CP: Sounds like that would be a very empowering feeling, creatively. What was your immediate thought after that realization?
MS: Needless to say, my friend and I went through a period of thinking that we could transform the whole planet. (Laughs.) We were in our early 20s, so I think empowerment is a mild phrase. (Laughs.) We went through a period of hubris that was beyond the beyond.
After we settled down, it was very interesting. Aesthetically speaking, as far as the music, it was a really great year because it was a discovery of a new style of our own. It was rooted in our past, but we had our own way of dealing with it. Spiritually, on that level, it was very high.
I moved to New York the year after that and, instantly, got thrust into the realities of survival in the music business and all those things. That is a whole different strata of things to be dealing with.
CP: Did that struggle after moving there hamper or fuel your creative drive?
MS: No, I think it fueled it. When I moved to New York, it was just so exciting. I won't say I was socially awkward before that, but I just didn't go out of my way to make friends and meet people. If it happened it happened.
When I came to New York, there seemed to be so many people who seemed so alive in whatever they were doing. It was a very exciting time for me. No matter how hard things got, I always relished being in the city.
CP: In an interview you did with Culture Clash, you said, “Seeing somebody actually sweat and think or not think and create the patterns of music live is something that is innate to the human experience.” How, if at all, does that philosophy inform your own performances?
MS: I assume I was talking about the fact that, despite the fact that jazz is always struggling to survive, it (jazz) will never die. I'm not sure how it informs my actual music.
It's one thing to listen to a recorded work, and it's another thing to go see someone create music live in front of you and have the commitment and the passion. I just don't ever see how jazz can die, for that reason.
It definitely struggles in the marketplace, as far as recorded music goes, especially now in the age of iPods when people buy tunes, not albums. Jazz has usually been construed as far as concept albums and things like that.
Every time you think it's dying, people come out to gigs and want to see it. It limps along, but it always keeps limping.
CP: Given that characteristic of jazz to thrive in a live setting, does the lack of an audience make it harder to work in the studio?
MS: No, not for me. The studio is a different environment than live performance. I relish both, but you have to approach them kind of different.
The problem with recording is that, unless someone is really a disciple of jazz or into it to begin with, when they go to see it, they sometimes go, “Oh,” and they get it,” whereas if you were sitting at home and put it on, you'd have to be into it already, unless that person is at the point where they're ready to get it.
Usually, the process is live and they go back to the albums at a later date. The problem lies more with how it's presented to listeners with musicians because if you get somebody into the studio and relaxed enough, they can have a good time, however they relax - mediation … dope. (Laughs.)
CP: How do you relax?
MS: I'm high-strung. I don't relax. (Laughs.)
CP: When you're playing and creating on the fly, do you have a way you conceptualize you're music? When you're playing on the fly and improvising, how do you conceptualize it?
MS: I don't know how to answer that. I have a language - a general underground language and resonance that I bounce off of - but I don't know how to answer that because it's all a non-verbal process anyway. I know a lot about music and I know a lot about what I do, and there's some intercession between my actual poetic, crazy world and the fundamentals of music. Somehow, music gets made, despite the fact that I might be going for something extra-musical.
CP: What do you say to people who feel that jazz, as a genre, has too steep of a learning curve or is intimidating?
MS: I don't say anything to them. I just feel sorry that that thought form exists.
Any thought like that is very entrenched, so if people are coming to that conclusion, I don't know what I can say that can change their perception, other than that there are plenty of people who dig the albums and go home and enjoy them.
I think, in a lot of ways, this society is so involved with instant gratification that they have a problem where they spend a second to get it or might have to slightly work at it slightly to get it. If they can't get past that, I don't know what to say to them.
CP: So they're missing out?
MS: That's my feeling. Maybe not in their mind, but I think they should give it a second.
CP: On your bio, it's written that “(you) possess a unique style … that is all your own … one of the few in jazz that can say so.” That seems like it sidelines a lot of other artists as derivative. What is it about your approach that is so distinguishing?
MS: I don't know. Everyone has their own fingerprint, so even if someone is derivative, they can't really sound like anyone else. I have a way of playing piano that is based on my own imagination. It's fairly well developed. That's all I know.
I can't speak about what anyone else is doing. I think that, to some extent, everyone has their own sound. It's just a matter of the way society is structured. People are not encouraged to develop their own voice in anything. It's all how far deep you go into it.
CP: You work as the curator of Thirsty Ear's blue label. What does that position entail?
MS: Mainly, I'm just a consultant. I don't run the label or anything - Peter Gordon does that - but I'm a consultant. The blue series is the jazz part of the label. I guess, at one point, I was like A&R, but now it's consultant kind of A&R.
CP: In what capacity do you consult for them?
MS: It's hard to explain. It's a daily process that goes on where I suggest artists and I'm involved in producing some of the albums. It's more just a figurehead. Basically, I suggest artists, and once they're signed, I might be in the process of making decisions about material.
CP: What do you look for in artists to suggest bringing onto the label?
MS: A unique approach, a unique sound - something very modern, but deep. One thing we definitely look for is a non-cliché approach to free jazz, even though a lot of what we do isn't “free jazz” in the way people think of it. We look for freedom and a modern sound, but not necessarily in the way people think of free jazz.
CP: Who are some examples of musicians who fit those criteria?
MS: Mat Maneri, Tim Berne, Craig Taborn, William Parker, Mary Halverson. We have a young, great alto player Greg Ward, who we just signed. The list goes on and on. We've brought in electronica people, too, who want to work with jazz musicians, like DJ Spooky and Antipop Consortium.
CP: At first listen, jazz and electronica don't sound like naturally compatible genres. Do they work well together, or does it take a lot of tweaking to make it work?
MS: We try to make it that. That's the challenge - man meets machine - to warm up the machine and/or explore aspects of the jazz language that electronica might bring out. Whether it succeeds or not is up to the listener. Some of the albums we've done have been very controversial - lauded by a lot of people and despised by others.
CP: Have you tried combining jazz and electronica in your own work?
MS: Yeah, I'm on an album with DJ Spooky and Antipop Consortum another coming out with Scanner. A couple of my albums that came out in the early 2000s dealt with an electronic programmer. “Equilibrium” and “Harmony and Abyss” were probably the two best ones of my own, as far as dealing with that aspect.
CP: You are an incredibly prolific recorder. In 2003 and 2009, you released at least four albums in a single year. Is that right?
MS: I don't even count. I'm slowing down. (Laughs.)
CP: How do you find time to release so much material?
MS: (Laughs.) I'm a workaholic, but I'm paying the price for that. There's a tradition in jazz of very prolific people recording. People like David Murray have way more albums than I do. I'm definitely slowing down, as far as recorded output, to give myself a chance to digest it.
CP: Is taking more time between releases allowing you to be more introspective about your music?
MS: Yes, I need this. I definitely need to look at the flowers and smell the air a little bit. The other thing about jazz musicians being extremely prolific is that, even though they're not huge, that's one aspect of your income. You tend to have a lot of small, independent labels offering you cash advances for CDs. Like any freelancers, if work is ahead of you and you have a chance to get paid for it, you do it because you have to. You'd be surprised how necessity is the mother of invention sometimes.
CP: Have there even been times when the necessity of recording something quickly has yielded better results than you expected?
MS: Yeah, but I don't know how I would qualify what album. I work with Thirsty Ear pretty closely. It's about an album a year there, and they're very well thought out. There have been some things I've done for a European label where I got an offer and just did it.
The thing is to have a fertile mind so that, even if you have to pull something out of the ether, you have enough alternatives, whether material or musicians you work with, to create a situation where something fresh and new has to occur by virtue of the situation. That's a matter of keeping an extremely fertile mind with a lot of options. Then, you find yourself being inventive and not going in old ruts because you set up a situation where you have to, by virtue of something in the environment.
CP: Do you have any idea what you'll be playing when you come here? Do you often make set lists or do you create on the fly?
MS: I won't know what I'm going to play until I hit the stage, but when I do solo gigs, it's usually a mix of my own tunes, some standards and pure improvisation. What and how, I have no idea until I hit the stage.
CP: Do you find that thrilling or is ever nerve-wracking?
MS: I've been doing this for a long time, so I know I'll make it. (Laughs.) It's not nerve-wracking, but I'm kind of obsessed with the connectives between the pieces. I always know I'll come up with some way to make it all work together. I guess that makes it thrilling because it's definitely an adventure for me. I don't know how I'll pull it all together every time, but I've done it long enough that I know I will pull it all together.
CP: You've played in the past with other artists and groups. Your show here will be a solo gig. How do you approach playing music or interacting with the audience differently when you're on your own?
MS: It's pretty much the same, except that when you're solo, you're solo, so the difference is that I have to rely on myself. I guess I slightly go deeper into myself, as opposed to a situation when I have other people helping out on stage. When you're playing solo, there's a direct connection between you, the music and the people. It's as pure and direct as it can possibly be.
CP: What are you working on now, recording wise?
MS: Actually right now, nothing. There are no pending new projects coming up. I'm just concentrating on working as much and getting gigs. I'm going to Europe a lot.
CP: Is that unusual for you?
MS: Yeah, it is. I'm thinking of holding out for my next recording anyway. I've talked about stopping recording since 1999. I actually put out a press release that I was never going to do another recording again in 1999. Obviously, I didn't keep my word. (Laughs.) I definitely want to concentrate on performance.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...