Since the early 1990s, piano maestro Matthew Shipp has been a chief linchpin of the avant-garde jazz underground, producing a monolithic catalog that has pioneered—and polarized—the jazz lexicon.
The East Village fixture (he’s been living downtown since the mid-’80s), alongside bassist/composer William Parker and the late, great saxophonist David S. Ware, formed a godlike trifecta of jazz giants who will forever remain pillars of the avant scene.
While Parker remains as productive as ever in his sixth decade and change, his pal Shipp is calling it quits—recording-wise that is. After soul-searching discussions with Thirsty Ear Records owner Peter Gordon, Shipp decided the just-released Piano Song would be his swan song.
But Shipp enthusiasts needn’t panic just yet. Not only will he be hanging onto his role as curator at Thirsty Ear but a spate of records are on tap to be released on other labels including, RogueArt and a pair (in quartet mode and solo) for the resurgent ESP-Disk imprint.
As Shipp winds down his recorded tenure at Thirsty Ear, we can heap praise on Shipp’s Piano Song. Backed by his Trio, including bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, the album continues his head-spinning streak. Teeming with his creative force of nature where he deconstructs the jazz idiom using his very own sonic language and superhuman lyricism, the album is akin to his definitive Thirsty Ear collection Greatest Hits (’13) and recent Trio joints, Root of Things (‘14) and The Conduct of Jazz (’15).
Then there’s Shipp’s punk rock and DIY underground M.O., a don’t-give-a-fuck ethos he’s cultivated since his days hustling for then-label manager at Homestead Records, Steven Joerg, who would go on to launch AUM Fidelity Records with the Ware/Parker/Shipp threesome that remain that label’s holy cornerstones.
Under Shipp’s stewardship, Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series has been an “out”-music game changer as he’s served as resident provocateur. Unfazed and undeterred, the exceptional tastemaker Shipp fused jazz with myriad musics including, electronics, collaborating with and releasing records by turntablists, knob-twiddlers and noisemakers like FLAM, DJ Spooky, a pre-Run The Jewels El-P, Spring Heel Jack and more.
As Shipp and his Trio gear up to play The Cutting Room this coming Thursday for the record release show to celebrate Piano Song, we sat down with the pianist at an Avenue A café to trace his Thirsty Ear lineage, his retirement from recording, enraging jazz elitists, his punk rock proclivities, the David S. Ware Quartet opening for Sonic Youth and fucking with people’s heads.
Let’s start with Piano Song. Why do you see this record as the closing chapter on your recording tenure with Thirsty Ear?
Well, Peter and I have been discussing—because I’ve been there a long time—and it’s kind of time to figure out a little different take on everything. We’ve been talking a long time about me eventually exiting as a recording artist. It just seemed the right time. I don’t know why but it did.
So it wasn’t like you recorded Piano Song then said to yourself, “This is it.”
It was nothing about the actual process of recording this album and the exact musical state.
What about recording for other labels? You’re done with those, too?
No, I’m gonna do a couple more records for ESP-Disk.
Ah, so you’re not ceasing all recording operations.
No, but I am immensely slowing down with it.
Why do you think you’ve come to that decision?
Oh, I’ve been trying to do that for a long time. [Laughing]
But you’re going to stick around Thirsty Ear as…
Which records are you most proud of in that whole catalog you’ve curated as The Blue Series, other than your own works?
The beginning of it was really exciting. It was really great to have been involved in a couple of Mat Maneri albums, just because my like for Mat’s position in the music and what he is is immense. It was also great to be involved with a couple of Craig Taborn albums, especially now that Craig’s on ECM and he wasn’t recording much as a leader. It just felt really good to be involved with a couple of his earlier albums as a leader.
What about the more outsider-y records you worked and played on like Black Music Disaster, things that didn’t particularly please jazz purists.
[Laughing] It’s fun to piss off people. I really enjoy working with Spring Heel Jack a lot because they turned me on to a whole new world of stuff. That’s a special album. There are certain albums you do. I did a duo album with J Spaceman on Spring Heel Jack’s label, Treader, and it’s just harmonium. It’s all like a drone, one drone.
It seems like you get off on getting a rise out of people.
Umm…yes [Laughs] I’m also accommodating. But I like fitting into people’s preconceived ideas then I like pulling the rug out from under them and really fucking with their heads.
What about the hip-hop and electronics-leaning material of The Blue Series?
That was a great period that started around 2003, a really alive period. We were really trying to stretch it, you know? I’m really proud of that period. That was a really “for real” period.
How did you wind up spearheading putting that music out there?
First of all, even though I’m considered a jazz avant-gardist, I’ve always listened to a lot of pop music and black pop music. I grew up with funk and I really could have easily gone with a ’70s funk thing because I grew up with that. My mother wanted me to play with Grover Washington.
She talked to him once and he said I should come out and audition for the band. Then I went into my thing. But always in the back of my head I was always really fascinated with dance music; I used to go to discos.
When I first moved to New York, I would hang out at The Pyramid [Club] and all these discos at night. I was hanging out in the Basquiat crowd in the early ’80s. I remember being really wasted and coming out of discos with like, Run-D.M.C in my head. I remember that image one night, almost having it juxtaposed what I do against that.
Then the idea of doing something musically like that manifested later on?
I wasn’t thinking of doing it but I remember that that idea kind of made sense; it was in the back of my head. Years later, Spring Heel Jack was actually recording with them [Thirsty Ear] and he told me they were jazz fans and wanted to do a collaboration. So I thought “Why not?” It was more of an ambient album but it got my taste wet. Then I remember one night going to a party and DJ Spooky was DJing. I went up to him afterwards just to say hi and introduce myself. He knew who I was right away and he said, “Oh, we should collaborate sometime.” And I thought to myself, “Yeah, right.” But then I was like, “Why not?”
Wasn’t there a there a similar stylistic cross-section thing happening at places like The Knitting Factory and Tonic back in the late ’90s and early 2000s?
Knitting Factory was about cross-sections but not that specific. That’s a very specific head space: like me playing with El-P, me with Antipop Consortium, me with Spooky—that was not happening at The Knitting Factory. That was a New York thing. I used to go to the record store that closed on 4th Street, Other Music, and Beans used to work there and I didn’t know he was in a band. He used to come up and talk to me a lot when I would go in. I just thought he was a guy that worked there.
You didn’t know who he was?
No, and he used to say we should collaborate. I would say, “O.K., yeah, let’s do it,” and I was thinking, “Who the fuck is this motherfucker?” [Laughs] Not in a nasty way…but then one day I actually was flipping through a magazine and saw a picture of this band and I was like, “That’s the guy from Other Music!” I was listening to his music and was like, “Oh wow,” and, yeah, so, it happened.
Was there certain places you were going to check music out in the city?
Not really. I started hanging out a lot in the early 2000s at lounge-type of things. I was just trying to soak up the scene in general, get a feel for the whole thing.
Obviously you were doing your own thing, and then there was this other stuff that wasn’t jazz you were interested into. Were you making a concerted effort to intersect it?
Yeah, yeah. It was kind of interesting. When I started working with John Coxon from Spring Heel Jack, he was a producer of Everything But The Girl and my wife’s really into trip-hop. She likes Tricky, Bjork, Portishead and Massive Attack. That was her world. So when John Coxon started calling my house and she found out I was gonna work with the guy that produced Everything But The Girl in it, she started even looking at me different! [Laughing]
Did your wife get you into trip-hop?
She was always joking with me like, “You should do some trip-hop. I think your sound would be good over it.” I was always like, “Yeah, right.” Then when it actually really started happening, she was really into it.
When you started curating that material and collaborating with those artists for The Blue Series, were there people who actually gave you shit for branching out into that?
I expected to but there were people who didn’t like it; it was never nasty or nobody ever called me a sellout. But I was actually expecting to get a lot of negative blowback and I didn’t. [Laughing] There’s people that didn’t like it or that type of thing where they didn’t like my version of it. But it was never really nasty or anything—that I saw! [Laughing]
Were you torn between staying faithful to the avant-garde jazz thing on your own and going this other route, playing with other non-jazz people?
No, no. Once I decided to go that way, it was just that’s what I was doing right now. It was a whole head space that I really got into. I wanted to collaborate with some people I never did like Amon Tobin, Kool Keith and Madlib. I wrote him a couple of times but he never got back to me. Even though I’m not doing that type of thing anymore, I might be playing on this other producer’s cut and Kool Keith might be on it later this year so I’ll get a chance to do something with him.
That collab seems like a good match.
My favorite incarnation of Kool Keith is Dr. Octagon. I love that album. It’s one of my favorite albums ever.
Has hip-hop had more of an influence on you than, say, jazz artists might have?
No, but at any time people veer off in different directions and, to me, it’s just another kind of way of doing things. Was jazz stale then? You can make an argument for that. If you look at it that way, I think it was a way to freshen up certain things.
Do you mean a certain period of jazz was stale or overall?
The whole mindset is stale but there’s always really talented, inspired people at all times playing. But that’s not the question. Do things have a mindset that could be oppressive in some ways? That could be said of jazz at times.
Do you think you accomplished what you set out to do as a Thirsty Ear artist and curator?
There’s always the constraint of time and you cut something off. I don’t think there’s really anything as bringing anything to fruition.
With your closing the door on recording for Thirsty Ear and ultimately for all other labels, are you going to concentrate solely on performing live?
I just basically want to get out on the road. I’ve been on the road a decent [amount] but I just want to perform and kind of become an elder statesman eventually.
William Parker certainly fits into that niche as an elder statesmen. Do you mean fitting in as an elder statesmen in his realm?
Well, no, but in a different way. There’s only one William Parker and I can’t step into his position or shoes. But I can create my own niche—which I think I have. William is very special and he’s played with a lot of people from the ’60s. He’s played with Don Cherry, Cecil [Taylor], Bill Dixon and that gives him a different type of sheen.
But you are stepping away…
I really don’t want to be putting out albums when I’m 60, 65, like I’m trying to make a statement because there’s nothing worse to me than, like, Herbie Hancock trying to put out a pop album or something, trying to make a statement when a 19-year-old kid can make a better statement. Of course, I’m not doing that; I’m doing acoustic jazz. But even with that, I don’t want to be littering the field for younger people; I’m not at that point yet where I’m littering the field. But maybe some young person thinks I am. I want to kind of step away from it and let a new generation…
Who do you see as taking over the helm in that new generation, if anyone?
I don’t really keep up with that what people are doing but at one point, I did, mainly because of the label. If I hear a certain name enough, I’ll check it out. The last two people we signed at Thirsty Ear were younger and who really made a profound statement would have been Dawn of Midi but they left the label and we just did Tomeka Reid last year. Other than that, the two people I personally promote—they’re both sax players—are James Brandon Lewis, who was a student of mine, and Darius Jones.
You’ve lived downtown since the mid-’80s and still many others live in the neighborhood, William, Newman, John Zorn. Is there still a sense of community in the musical sense?
There used to be a really big sense of it but now a lot of people have moved to Brooklyn and some to Jersey. But this is historically a great jazz neighborhood. Mingus lived on 5th Street, Charlie Parker on 10th Street…
And you lived there at one point, right?
Yeah, when I was homeless, the woman who owns it, took me in for three months and let me stay there until I found a place. I feel the history in the neighborhood, definitely. But other than my friends, I’m in my own world.
But there was a vibrant scene at the Knit and Tonic that doesn’t really exist anymore?
Well, I don’t know if it’s here because I don’t go out.
[Laughing] And now The Stone is shutting its doors.
Right, right. Tonic and Knitting Factory were definitely hangs, a scene. That’s definitely kind of dispersed. I know there’s a lot of places in Brooklyn but I never go out there. I don’t want to say it’s not like the good ol’ days but it might not be. [Laughing]
Do you have a preference for playing in New York as opposed to Europe?
I want to play music so I want to play wherever there’s a warm body that’ll listen. You never want to be a local, though. To be honest, even though I need to be on the road as much as possible to make money, being on the road is hard, especially the older you get. I actually like playing in New York.
Do you think over the years there’s more of an acceptance of you and your music, like people have come around?
It seems to me that whatever discomfort some people might have felt with me at some point, that’s kind of melting away. People seem to be ready to really deal with whatever that thing is that I am. Things happen when it’s time for them to happen and the general perception of who you are and where you fit and I would tend to think my fan base feels the essence of my language right away and they relate to it.
If you instantly relate to the language, that’s one thing like you “get it.” But then there’s other people that look at you and they are not quite sure of the rationale behind your whole existence and where you fit in. Once they feel O.K. and then they feel permission to come into the world, then they actually get the music all of a sudden.
And I’m feeling that’s really starting to happen now. Not that I have a massive audience like some straight ahead person—actually sometimes free jazz has more people into it than straight ahead jazz, just ‘cause you can get more people on the fringes. I’m feeling mainstream jazz, which I’ve been so at odds in so many ways for so many years, it’s really starting to accept me.
Why do you think that is?
Because I’ve worn them out! [Laughing]
At 56, does that sort of…
…End it all? [Laughing]
Is that acceptance sort of gratifying for you?
Theoretically, you have all the energy in the world but as finite human beings, you don’t, you know? You can’t keep fighting the system all the time. Well, I guess you could. You never really want to fit in to the system—unless I fit in to the system, I’ll figure out a way to fuck something up, purposely, so…But at the same time, there does come a time where you’re not in your 20s anymore or your 30s, or your 40s. [Laughing]
Do you think you’ve achieved this acceptance because you are less “out” than you used to be?
No, no, I would say that there might be more clarity in certain ways in certain specific ways than there used to be and that’s a purposeful thing. I kind of think differently now but I’ve always aimed for lyrical quality. At one time, I was a little crazier player but I’ve always aimed for a lyrical language always.
So maybe 20 years ago or so, you enjoyed fucking with people’s heads?
I don’t think that way anymore but there was a time I did think it was important for me to be cutting-edge. Now it’s just important for me to be myself—whatever that is. And that can be different things at different times.
At the same time you are being accepted, you are done with recording.
Well, people have a whole catalog to catch up with—a very deep one. You know, I’ve been doing this for a long time, man, and the process of putting out an album, there’s a whole head space: the conception of it, the execution of it, the packaging of it, the marketing of it and there’s actually putting it out here into the world.
That’s an all-inclusive thing and if you really take it seriously, there’s a lot of energy and emotion that goes to every aspect of it. You just can’t keep doing it over and over. I do know older artists that just go through the motions and I really don’t want to get there. That’s what I’m actually scared of, that I get to a point where I’m putting out a product just for a paycheck.
One of the most intriguing periods of your career arc is early on when you and William did that duo record, Zo, for Rise Records, a small Texas punk label. Later on, Henry Rollins reissued it on his 2.13.61 label. What do you recall about that and Rollins being a fan?
That was a really exciting period, in a different way than electronica because that just happened naturally also. There was a historical precedent for punk rockers being into free jazz: MC5 and Sun Ra on bills together, I think Don Cherry was on a Lou Reed album. It’s not like that paradigm but it was kind of rediscovered by us and these guys were all into jazz—Rollins, Thurston Moore. They’re just really jazzheads and Henry has a really extensive jazz collection and knowledge of jazz.
So you were pretty in the know of Rollins and into Black Flag?
Yeah, I was aware of him and I did like Black Flag a lot. A few years before I met Henry, I got pretty aware of them.
Then Rollins reissued Zo on his label.
It felt really exciting because all these young people were discovering free jazz. But what was cool about it was, there was no racism, it was just a cool scene. I remember feeling like Thurston and Henry were around my age and they felt really comfortable around the whole thing. It was a generational thing where everybody was basically cool. It almost felt like, say, the alternative rock that was coming out of the punk scene, you could incorporate almost anything.
It was like a label but in some weird, abstract way—so many things can happen under that. You could get as much of a power-pop band as Nirvana or a noisy…so much could happen under that label.
We were in the same magazines. There was an old issue of SPIN with Courtney Love on the cover and there’s a piece on me in there; it was just a really cool time. It felt like this kind of bizarre melting pot of really cool stuff. That stuff dissipated though, that whole thing ended, and then electronica took over. I was socially in the middle of that whole scene because I was really close friends with Chan Marshall from Cat Power and the whole Matador scene. I was just in the middle of all that. I knew a lot of people.
And Steve Joerg, who later launched AUM Fidelity, worked at Homestead and your relationship with him started there.
The way I met him was William and I did Zo on Rise Records. That label, Rise Records, was distributed by Homestead Records. He had done that William Hooker album [1994’s Radiation] so I gave him a Ware album.
You mentioned Moore. Did your paths cross in the NYC experimental clubs where the two of you collaborated or played on a bill together?
Well, no, at that point Sonic Youth was a big rock band. But actually the Ware Quartet opened for Sonic Youth. But by that point they were a big rock group.
Right. Sonic Youth would sometimes tap “out”-jazz and experimental-leaning groups to open for them in order to introduce them to a new, bigger audience, like Sun Ra at Central Park in 1992. What do you remember about that show where the Ware Quartet opened up for Sonic Youth? That was about mid-’90s, right?
David really liked it. He looked out at all these young kids and he was like, “I like this!” [Laughing] He was completely into it. All these young kids—it felt like a new audience. To him [David], there was no difference between Sonic Youth and The Rolling Stones. It was just all rock to him. But he did like playing for all the young kids.
Where was that show?
That was in Midtown—Roseland. That was a really cool period and the possibilities felt endless. The other thing that was cool about it is a lot of the punk rock kids would discover the music then educate themselves on the whole history of the music. It wasn’t just they related to the noisy elements of it and the energy; they were really relating to the lyrical aspects of it, too. It was a really great period and for us. We were being covered in the fanzines and stuff so it fostered a whole different way for us to get covered other than in the jazz magazines.
That must have been a thrill for you at the time to open for Sonic Youth and be playing such a big venue in front of a crowd that wasn’t your typical audience. Were you like “this is insane”?
Not insane but like, “this is fucking great.” All these young kids screaming and stuff. There was no jazz shows like that. [Laughing] I did the things in small venues, too. William and I did a duo tour once and we opened for this punk band in Houston called Rusted Shut and Mr. Quintron, he was on the bill.
Finally, back to wrapping up your recording career. What’s your next plans with your Trio after The Cutting Room gig?
I have a feeling this trio wants to make another album. We’re a team. If an opportunity presents itself for another album, I’d probably do it—just for them.