Last June New York pianist Matthew Shipp played a rare trio concert in Chicago, delivering a scorching, tightly coiled set at Constellation with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey. He’s been a semiregular presence in the city as a solo artist, but a rhythm section brings out a different side of his playing—more propulsive and springy. The context gives a lift to his jagged lines and dense harmonies—they seem to take flight—while the extra harmonic muscle of a bassist lends a richness to his dark chords and glassy runs.
For many years Shipp was the crucial foil to the powerful saxophonist David S. Ware, working closely with him between 1991 and the early aughts, but he’s always been a prolific bandleader and soloist in his own right. As much as I’ve been a devoted fan of the pianist’s peripatetic output over the last two and a half decades, I think the current group with Bisio and Dickey—with whom the pianist first worked in the trio with bassist William Parker and later in Ware’s quartet—is making some of the finest music in Shipp’s career. Root of Things (Relative Pitch), a stunningly good new album with that trio, only strengthens the case.
Dickey is a wonderful, imaginative percussionist who splinters time with the best of them. His pulse is imperturbable, but his cymbal work chops up and displaces rhythms in a manner that matches Shipp’s time-fracturing lines perfectly. I wouldn’t say that the pianist has mellowed with time—his composing and playing are no less rigorous than in his early days, and his improvisations have always been marked by a brooding intensity—but he has become more direct and concise. That’s apparent in the piece “Code J,” which you can hear below. It opens with a brief but delicate solo passage, as pretty as it is moody, before the agile rhythm section joins in—holding back masterfully. Bisio fans the fire with knotty pizzicato that suggest a less frenetic William Parker, while Dickey circles the perimeter with judicious tom and snare patter, and crisp, meticulously pitched cymbal dialogue. This piece nicely represents the entire record, balancing energetic playing with a gorgeous sense of restraint, melody with dissonance, and rhythmic elegance with contained chaos.
Andrea Neumann & Bonnie Jones, Green Just as I Could See (Erstwhile)
Orchestre National de Jazz, Piazzolla! (Jazz Village)
Peals, Walking Field (Thrill Jockey)
Gary Smulyan, Smul’s Paradise (Capri)
Mikal Cronin, MCII (Merge)