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: Well, this begs the question of how your music is received in Europe. Many jazz players have commented on how they are much better received in Europe than they are in this country.

Matt Shipp: I think it goes beyond the acceptance of jazz. This country is supposedly the richest country in the world, but we have 40 million people without health care while they work full time jobs and can’t make ends meet. Let’s just start with that. I think there are some really bizarre priorities. The obvious priority in this country is to make money, and then to make more money, and then make more and more money. So, it’s not like you can make 10 million dollars and be happy. If you have 10 million, you’ve got to make 20 million. If you’re a pharmaceutical company and have 50 billion dollars, you’ve got to have 100 billion dollars. Obviously all the priorities are skewed, so the idea of playing jazz and getting appreciated and compensated for that is a mute point when you have people who work full time jobs who can’t even afford to get sick. So you’ve got to keep it in context. It’s unfortunate that there’s not more of an avenue in this country for jazz artists to be of more use to the society. Something just as little as if there was a real touring circuit that was funded and you could really tour America. That’s why American jazz musicians had to go to Europe to make a living because at least there’s a tradition there of people touring to play music and actually getting paid for it. There are government programs to make sure that certain clubs and performance venues can stay open just so musicians will have a place to play. That’s a pretty basic idea. I just find it interesting that this country seems to only care about making more money, period.

FJO: What are some of the economic avenues that can be pursued here? You’re the artistic advisor to a really fascinating series on a record label.

MS: That’s a commercial label. Our goal there is to make money. To make records that people will buy, or to convince people to buy our records.

FJO: Does it make money?

MS: I don’t look at the books, so I can’t say. That’s not my job there. Certain albums have sold decent. And most don’t, but a few have. My guess is that the guy who runs the label couldn’t retire from doing a jazz record label like that because I know what the cost of putting things like that in the marketplace is. The record industry for jazz is harsh. Look at all the important record labels in jazz: Blue Note, Verve, Riverside. They were all bought out by major corporations and so they’re [now] part of major label umbrellas, but at one point, when all those labels were doing vital recordings, they were all independent. Even if you have a name and you have some artists that sell, it’s really very difficult to be an independent label that records jazz artists. You’re not going to make a profit. If you have a huge catalog, there is some point where the catalog has a weight of its own. If you have a new record and people are ordering it, especially from overseas, they’re going to order something else in the back catalog, so that catalog starts carrying weight. But that takes a long time. You have to lose a lot of money before that happens.

FJO: Then there’s also the scenario of the runaway hit, like what Blue Note had with Norah Jones.

MS: Interestingly enough, I’ve talked to people at Blue Note and they talk like they’re broke. Norah Jones sold 18 million records, and that album costs very little money to make because she’s a no frills-type artist. Yeah, they had a runaway hit so they can afford to do Jason Moran and Greg Osby albums, because Norah’s paying the bills.

FJO: One of the things that amazes me about jazz records in the past versus now is that, in the past, companies issued all these incredible live albums, but very few labels do that now.

MS: I think that any artist who has a significant career will eventually make a live album. I’m trying to think of young jazz artists who’ve been around for a while. Jason Moran’s made a live album. I don’t know if Brad Meldau ever did a live album. Anybody like that will eventually want to make a live album, and the labels won’t get it in the way if it’s strategically the right move.

FJO: I know it was a big deal when David S. Ware finally put out live recordings.

MS: We did that with Thirsty Ear. We thought that that was the only appropriate move at this time. He has loads of studio recordings. He has a band that’s been together for years. So why not put out a document that shows what they actually do in the heat of the moment, which is what the music’s about.

FJO: That leads us to the whole question of leader vs. sideman in this music. Do you think differently when you’re a leader or a sideman in a certain group? There’s a chemistry between you and William Parker, which I hear when you play your own music, but also when you both play in Ware’s quartet; it transcends the context.

MS: I definitely think differently as a leader and a sideman. Within the realm of the David S. Ware quartet, I am being myself in the realm of his vision and his vocabulary and his language. When I’m a sideman, I really try to get inside the mind of the leader and be an extension of their brain and body even. I think I’m so attuned to Ware’s particular vision that I really don’t even consider myself a sideman. I consider myself a collaborator. But at the end of the day, all of the major decisions are his decisions, so there is that element. I’m a little bit more than a sideman but I’m not as free as I am in my own groups where it’s truly all my vision.

FJO: You’ve also worked with musicians who are primarily coming out of the classical tradition, like Evan Ziporyn and Daniel Bernard Roumain. In classical music, the whole concept of leader vs. sideman plays out very differently. It’s kind of unfair to call them classical musicians because they’re all over the map. But I know that Evan plays a lot of other people’s music and when he does he’s reading from other composer’s scores and his primary goal as a player is to interpret someone else’s vision rather than creating his own space within it. How did that play out on The Sorcerer Sessions?

MS: That album was originally conceived as a hybrid chamber group. I originally wanted to have Daniel Carter play clarinet and Mat Manieri play violin, and Peter Gordon, the producer at Thirsty Ear, said if you want to do a hybrid album, why don’t you get classical players instead of jazz avant-garde players. So he asked me who I would like. I did a piece for Bang on a Can once and there was a section where the clarinet was free to improvise and I remember being absolutely blown away by what Evan had done. Plus I’d also heard Evan do a solo clarinet piece. I was stunned by his virtuosity and his concept. Virtuosity is a very bizarre phrase because it can be empty. But when it is virtuosity of concepts then it becomes profound, which is what I was struck with in his clarinet playing. If Eric Dolphy were a classical musician, he’d be Evan Ziporyn. So I felt he’d be open to the concept that I was going after in that recording, and he was. Daniel Bernard Roumain I met through DJ Spooky.

It actually sold a lot less than any of my other albums. It wasn’t under my name it was under the Blue Series Continuum, but it was the Blue Series Continuum Plays the Music of Matthew Shipp. We got some really amazing reviews and some really nasty ones. The amazing ones really got into the whole spirit of it, and the nasty ones really had problems. Some of the nasty ones were by people who are big fans of mine. Even to this day, a friend of mine told me he played a cut from it on WFMU, and when he did he said it was one of the great secret “un-hits” of recent history.

FJO: When you did that piece for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, you weren’t playing with them which is the typical classical music paradigm. There are exceptions, but usually the composer is either dead or is sitting in the audience rather than on stage making that music happen. But this has never been a paradigm for jazz. Sure, Mingus didn’t play on his very last studio album, but that was only because he physically couldn’t play at that point. So how does it feel to be divorced from your own music that way?

MS: I’ve done a few pieces for other chamber ensembles too: Relâche in Philly and the Kitchen House Blend here in New York. It was fascinating for me to not be involved with playing it. I think my music is definitely a real outgrowth of me, me at the piano providing my specific harmonic language and my specific touch. So when I’m divorced from the actual act of making it, it’s a very weird thing for me. But, at the same time, it’s also a great experience because sometimes they do things with sections that make it completely different from the way I had originally envisioned it. They bring something completely different out in the language than I would. It’s fascinating to have these musicians from a slightly different background interpret your pieces. They definitely make it something else than what it would be if I had my own ensemble playing it and I was in the middle of it. It’s always weird for me to watch a pianist play. Even if there’s something I wrote out that’s very similar to my piano language, they have a different touch, a different attack, a different way of coloring, a different rhythmic sense, even if they’re playing something that’s completely notated.

FJO: Certainly within jazz, there’s a whole tradition of re-interpreting other people’s music and making it your own: standards from Broadway shows, Monk or Ellington tunes can become something entirely different. When Monk plays Cole Porter, it’s Monk.

MS: I’ve done loads of standards. I do them in my style. On one of David S. Ware’s Sony albums we did “The Way We Were.” I actually know one of the co-writers of that, Marilyn Bergman, and I never told her. I’m afraid for her to hear that version.

FJO: I love that recording. It’s a very creative interpretation. She might get a kick of it. Are there other jazz groups out there doing your tunes?

MS: There are people that have recorded a couple of my tunes.

FJO: And what does that feel like?

MS: I’m glad somebody takes me seriously enough to do my music. And if they call and ask me how they should interpret it, I tell them to do it their own way. To me it meant one thing, but I don’t own the language. The riff came out of my head, but once it’s a composition out there, you can do whatever the hell you want to do.

FJO: So that begs a question which brings us back to hip-hop. People are out there who are not just taking the tunes, but sampling the actual performances of them and creating new work with them. You’ve obviously collaborated with Anti-Pop Consortium. What’s it like to have something you did physically in time be morphed into something completely different from what you intended? It’s you but it’s not you. How would you feel if someone did that to your music who was not in direct collaboration with you?

MS: If somebody just took something of mine and sampled it, I want some money. I mean, look at this one room apartment! I don’t really own anything. I own this computer and a TV. Don’t do what the Beastie Boys did to James Newton. If somebody’s gonna sample, please send some cash. But I don’t have any problems with the whole process and the whole philosophical idea of it. It’s a part of music making at this juncture in music history. Synthetic albums are a part of jazz history. Go back to Bitches Brew. They’re studio creations. Obviously, live musicians were gathered for the source material, but it was mutated and transformed by splicing and other processes. That whole way of making music I find challenging. I don’t really anally hold on to a riff of mine thinking it was created in this context so it should only be in this context. If I’m putting out an acoustic jazz album, I anally hold to the material in that way [when I’m making the album], but once anything’s put on tape, it lends itself for use in different situations. If somebody wants to use it and mutate it, all I ask is for some money. I don’t control the product past that.

FJO: I’m sure you follow all the back and forth these days about the whole phenomenon of downloading.

MS: Obviously, I feel people should pay for it. How do they expect people to make music if they don’t? If people keep downloading it for free, then the whole music industry collapses and nobody can make recordings because there’s no way to pay a bill. The whole thing just ends. Where do people think it’s gonna go. If you’re going to get a product, you have to patronize the people that make it. You’re just a spoiled brat if you think stuff just exists for free. It costs money to give your kids piano lessons so they can learn music. To send them to music school, it costs money. If somebody makes a living as a janitor cleaning up in a music school and the music school doesn’t exist, then that janitor has kids who can’t eat. The whole thing on every level costs money. I think the idea of free downloads is retarded, unless you want the structure of the whole thing to fall apart. And when it does, people will be scratching their heads why. It’s obvious.

FJO: Yet it’s become such a thing now and the record companies are scrambling. To people from a certain generation, the record companies are looking like the villains.

MS: To anybody who’s downloading for free, my question is: What do you do for a living? Whatever you do, let me have it for free.