There is little doubt that Matthew Shipp is among the most brilliant pianists in jazz. But over his three-decade career he has sparked no shortage of controversy due to his embrace of genres outside of jazz.
In the 1990's he put out records on punk rocker Henry Rollins' 2.13.61 label. He later performed and recorded with DJ Spooky.
"It just seemed right," says Shipp, who visits the Bop Shop Friday for a duo performance with bassist Michael Bisio. "I always want to try something a little different. I more or less kept my own language. I wasn't trying to sell out; I was trying to stretch the music somewhere else.
"Jazz is just like the clothes you wear; it's not the body or the soul. It's not about any style or genre, it's about being expressive on the instrument. Anything that's useful gets put in the pot."
Growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, Shipp had early role models. His uncle, who just turned 100, played classical piano. And Shipp admired the organist at the family's Episcopalian church. Meanwhile, at home, his parents were into "whatever jazz was hip," Shipp says. His youth had a soundtrack of Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis albums.
Shipp's pivotal experiences with jazz came by way of two concerts on public television when he was 12 years old. The first featured Nina Simone. "There was something dark and mysterious about her," Shipp says. "It actually scared me. I remember thinking it's powerful and otherworldly. I loved her singing and piano playing."
Shipp says Simone "could take any song and create her own idiom. It's like a Nina Simone idiom; it's not even jazz. Other people like that are Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Bob Dylan."
The second concert featured pianist Ahmad Jamal. "There was just something so cool about it and black about it too," Shipp says.
Philadelphia was just 20-minutes away and, in his late teens, Shipp went there to study with Dennis Sandole, who had been John Coltrane's teacher. Sandole taught him "that musical language is an infinite, elastic thing and the possibilities are endless. However, you must work your language until it is a part of you."
Aside from jazz, Shipp was enamored with late classical music, especially that of composers like Alexander Scriabin. Elements of this are apparent in his music today. He was also well versed in the popular music of his time and, in a YouTube video of a concert with DJ Spooky, Shipp gets into a catchy groove reminiscent of a pop hit.
Despite the fact that his mastery of technique and broad knowledge of music would allow him to play any style, three decades into his career Shipp is known as an avant-garde jazz artist.
"I've always searched for my own language," Shipp says. "I don't really have a choice."
Shipp's new album is a solo affair titled "I've Been to Many Places." The title tune and other intriguing originals are as much contemporary classical pieces as they are jazz, but Shipp would be the last to classify them. The CD also features personal interpretations of "Summertime," "Naima," "Tenderly," and "Where Is The Love."
His influences are numerous: Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, Fats Waller, Andrew Hill, Lennie Tristano, Bill Evans, Paul Bley and, Shipp adds, the articulation of classical pianist Glenn Gould. "But I would say my favorite pianist in the world is Bud Powell," Shipp says. "His patterns are so fresh — they feel like brainwaves — and his pulse is so pure.
"Sun Ra is also a big influence in his overall philosophical way of looking at jazz and the way he synthesizes mysticism along with jazz within the character that he created for himself."
In the video with DJ Spooky, Shipp alludes to past greats, "The ancestors," saying, "I feel all those people alive in me when I'm playing." He elaborates:
"The language of the ancestors, it's like food. You eat cabbage and it becomes your fingernails through some mysterious process. When you study the past you're actually eating it and digesting it into your system. They're a part of you; you're a part of them. We partake in that process: a jazz language photosynthesis of some sort."
Shipp's influences are not confined to music. If you check out his performances online, the first video you'll encounter is a rendition of "Greensleeves" reminiscent of John Coltrane's treatment of "My Favorite Things." In both cases, an artist with a unique style takes a conservative tune and subverts it with a radical, yet strangely beautiful, approach.
Jabbing, thrusting, and crossing over, his arms leap around the piano in a manner that looks frenetic if not downright wild. But the notes he's playing somehow make perfect sense.
"I've spent my whole life devoted to the piano," Shipp says. "I know it and I feel I can give over control to a kind of subconscious process. I have complete and utter faith that some kind of musical structure will come about.
"It's never just giving over to the id. No matter how outwardly it seems like the gestures might be crazy, I have faith in some kind of innate musical GPS that's deep within me."
To viewers of the video, it might appear that he is sparring with the piano. Shipp, who has written a poem titled "Jazz and Boxing," embraces the connection.
"I view even the most abstract jazz as related to dance," says Shipp. "Cecil Taylor is a big fan of dance and he always talks about how that was a big part of his music. I view boxing as a dance. It's such a big part of my life. I'm such a big fan. I have been since I was five. It definitely somehow enters my subconscious mind."