Matthew Shipp: Leaving the Door Open

Matthew Shipp: Leaving the Door Open

Matthew Shipp: Leaving the Door Open

One of jazz’s top pianists talks about why his music is jazz and why it also isn’t.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

Frank J. Oteri: You’re more immersed in music than most of the people I’ve met, yet there seems to be almost no evidence of music in your apartment other than a few CDs in a corner.

Matt Shipp: I’m from Wilmington, Delaware, and I lived in Boston a couple of years before I came here. When I moved to New York in 1984, I had a vinyl record collection. When I discovered Sounds and a couple of other record stores and needed money, my record collection quickly went from about 2000 to about 4 or 5. I sold a lot of records on the street, too. Selling my record collection was one of my initial ways of raising cash when I moved here, plus I had a Fender Rhodes electric piano that I sold to get some cash just to move here. I’ve never practiced in my apartment. For a year, when I first moved here, I used to do duos with Rob Brown, an alto sax player at NYU. The guards would see me and thought I was a student; so I used to go every day and practice there. Practice rooms were locked, but sometimes when people left they’d leave the door open so you could just go in. But if they didn’t, I had to sit around and wait for someone to come out of a practice room and I’d run and grab the door before it closed. I practiced there every day for a year and wave at the guards. Then one day, for some reason, a guard asked me to see an I.D.—I guess he realized I wasn’t a student—and I told him I had to go home to get it and I never went back. After that I found a church that let me practice there. I’ve practiced at a couple of community centers and now I have a place in midtown where I practice.

But I’ve never had a piano in the place I live, which is both a blessing and a curse for a lot of different reasons. Obviously, if an idea hits me, I’d like to be able to work something out, be able to just get up and do it without having to jump on the subway and go to midtown. I have a Casio here and I work out little melodic ideas on that. The one way that it’s a blessing is that my practice routine is very focused because I know I only have a certain number of hours a day. When I go there, I really have to get stuff done, so I manage to keep a very focused mindset from having to work that way.

FJO: So where and how do you come up with your original compositions, at home or in a practice session?

MS: It’s a mixture. At home, I work things out on the Casio or even in my head sometimes. But I usually compose at the piano, because I’m a pianist. Even when composing for other instruments, my whole way of dealing with organizing music is from a pianist’s perspective. I have ideas floating around, but I can’t focus on them in ways that I want to focus on them as a pianist until I get to the piano.

FJO: The pianist’s perspective is somewhat at odds with the perspectives of other players. Most musicians play their own instrument in every club they play in, every concert hall. But for a pianist it’s always a different instrument, so you don’t have that same sort of intimate relationship with a particular instrument.

MS: Paul Bley used to say that he never practiced because what’s the use of practicing if every piano is completely different. He never mentioned that he was a virtuoso pianist by the age of twelve, but his point is well taken. I find that to be a beautiful challenge because every instrument has a different character and a different personality. When I do performances at gigs, I’m pretty equipped to sum up what the piano’s strengths and weaknesses are. And then, your playing changes according to what that instrument offers.

FJO: And, of course, it also changes depending on who you’re playing with. In improvised music, it’s not like a classical chamber music setting where people are rehearsing to get a very specific interpretational result in a performance of a specific composition. A lot of an improvised group’s sound world is something that develops over time and from ongoing performance situations with those people.

MS: The great thing about the music to me is the fact that you can create a whole space in time with other people, and the whole idea of a group of people weaving a universe in space and time is an exciting idea. You step outside of the harsh reality of the real world into hopefully a nice tapestry of sound.

FJO: But the piano is a weird kind of anachronism. There are certain things you can and can’t do on it, yet that hasn’t seemed to get in your way.

MS: At the turn of the century, everybody had pianos in their houses. Not everybody, but a lot of people. And it was a part of society. It’s not really that way anymore. Nowadays, what makes a little kid want to take piano lessons when most kids are interested in learning how to sample? But the piano will never go away. There’s something so innate about having ivory that you push down with your hands to create harmonies and melodies. The human need to play the piano will always be there. But what’s really fascinating about the piano now is that whenever a piano does collide with technology, it makes for a lot of interesting mutations and permutations. I don’t really look at the piano as being finite. I think a piano theoretically has infinite possibilities if a new genre of music came along and the utilization of the piano in that genre is another possibility for the instrument. Of course there hasn’t been a new genre of music since hip-hop, but the point is that the piano is adaptable to a lot of things. I think the limitations of the piano only go as far as the imaginations of piano players or composers who compose for the piano. But apart from that, the piano is a fascinating instrument that will have a lot of utilization in the future and it’s obviously shaped the past. When I think of the piano in America, other than the European tradition, I think of its usage in the genre of jazz, I think of Scott Joplin, I think of John Cage’s prepared piano, Elton John, well he’s English. It has just so many applications.

I’m [now] getting ready to do a solo piano album. When I did DNA, which was a duo with William Parker, I said I was going to retire from recording. Obviously I didn’t and I put out 20 or 30 albums since then. But this album, being that it’s solo, is definitely going to be my grand statement. I’ve done enough albums, man. Anybody who wants to find out what I’m about, there’s more than enough material in the bins. There’s not that many more albums coming from me.

FJO: You don’t feel like you’re going to evolve into something else and have other things to say?

MS: If I do, it’s going to take me a while. This solo album’s going to be really good but I’m basically burned out.

FJO: So what will you do?

MS: I have a couple of months off when I’m not touring, but from September I’m back out on the road. I’m involved with loads of projects and I’ve got loads of little minor details I’m doing every day. And I’m still working at the record label, so there’s stuff to do there. I’m just really burned out; I’ve never had a vacation.