Throughout a career spanning four decades, pianist Matthew Shipp has made clear that he understands the value of deepening a musical relationship over time. While he’s played and recorded with a wide variety of fellow improvisers, he returns to certain collaborators over and over. “In some ways I got that stance from David Ware,” says Shipp, 57. He was the tenor saxophonist’s principal pianist from 1989 till his death in 2012, providing a crucial artistic foil—and helping the soulful, powerful David S. Ware Quartet become one of the most important groups of its day. The quartet ushered in a new era in free jazz, and saxophonist Branford Marsalis even signed them to Columbia Records for a short stint.
“Ware only wanted to work with his quartet,” Shipp says. “He was into the idea of developing his thing with his group, and I’ve kind of adopted that idea, although for me it’s with a revolving cast—more people than were in his orbit. People have a natural affinity to each other, and I don’t want to feel like I’m in a musical orgy with lots of partners.”
Shipp has yet to bond with anyone else the way he did with Ware, but his partnership with Brazilian saxophonist Ivo Perelman comes close. Since the two of them began collaborating in the mid-90s, they’ve released nearly 40 albums together in various configurations, including more than a dozen in the past two years. One of those recordings, last year’s Heptagon (Leo), features a dynamic quartet with bassist William Parker (the other longtime anchor in the Ware group) and drummer Bobby Kapp. That’s the lineup that Shipp and Perelman are bringing to the Jazz Festival for their first mutual appearance in Chicago.
“Over the years our relationship has evolved, because we had a commitment to really developing a language together, and that’s very rare,” says Shipp. “A lot of times you play with somebody and it works and it can be cool, but it’s very seldom there’s commitment. When I was in the Ware group, there was a commitment to the group, to the language that everybody had. I have that with Ivo, and that’s pretty rare. It was quite a while ago, but I remember the first time I played with him, I felt a connection.” For most of the aughts, Shipp and Perelman were kept apart by other projects, but when they resumed their collaborations in the early 2010s, they hadn’t lost a step. “When we got back together after all those years, it was still there,” Shipp says. “And it’s only gotten deeper and deeper.”
Matthew Shipp & Ivo Perelman Quartet
Sat 9/1, 1:50-2:45 PM, Von Freeman Pavilion
Edward “Kidd” Jordan, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, and Alvin Fielder
Fri 8/31 and Sat 9/1, 9:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, constellation-chicago.com, free, 18+. Also Sun 9/2, 9 PM, Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont, hungrybrainchicago.com, free, 21+.
In the studio, Shipp and Perelman have been making up for lost time, releasing a stack of albums—some of them duos, some of them with guests such as drummers Andrew Cyrille and Gerald Cleaver, trumpeter Nate Wooley, and bassist Brandon Lopez. “The duo has its own way of communicating, and when you add a different person it changes,” Shipp says. “If the different person is someone we don’t have a history with, it either throws our narrative off and that’s good because it creates something different, or it throws our narrative off and it’s not good.” Judging from the recordings, it’s been good more often than not.
Shipp has also continued to make music with other members of his intimate circle. Earlier this year he released Seraphic Light (Aum Fidelity), a live chamber-jazz outing with Parker and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter, as well as Sonic Fiction (ESP-Disk), a quicksilver quartet session with bassist Michael Bisio, drummer Whit Dickey, and young Polish saxophonist Mat Walerian.
In the 1990s Shipp enjoyed a period of notoriety outside the jazz world, thanks largely to the efforts of former Black Flag front man Henry Rollins, whose 2.13.61 label released several of the pianist’s recordings. But Shipp has never let a momentary shot at fame debase his work. “Going through all of those periods and trends, at least I got my name out there, so a decent number of people know who I am and what I’m about,” he says. “That provided the luxury of being able to sit back and just do my thing. At the end of the day, that’s all you can do. I’ve had to depend on the quality of my work and to build an audience based on that. You just got to do your thing and keep at it.”
Shipp’s music may be superficially apolitical, but on social media—notably Facebook—he’s recently emerged as an unrelenting critic of Donald Trump. He’s adamant, though, that his contempt for the president won’t end up turning his performances into polemics. “The music is a vehicle to transport you to someplace positive,” he says. “I keep them separate—for me music is metaphysical, and I don’t want Donald Trump around any of my music.” v