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Whenever Matthew Shipp’s name comes up on print, usually the next word, or prior word, or the word that pops out in the next sentence, is genius. What is it about the pianist and composer that earns him that sobriquet, which appears in nearly every article or review written about him? For this writer, it comes down to this: he is able to stretch a song’s arrangement to the limit, right up to the breaking point, sometimes beyond – yet he never loses sight of the tune, the whole raison d’être of a performance in the first place. Whether he’s playing a piece written years ago or one written in the moment, Shipp always remembers the melody, even as he molds, squeezes or crops it into near-unrecognizable shape. On World Construct, his umpteenth album in a career so prolific there’s no point counting, the jazz giant is in top form with his latest trio.
Part of Shipp’s success can be attributed to his way of leading a band – he knows who to pick that understands his vision. Bassist Michael Bisio, a formidable leader in his own right, has played with Shipp for decades, while drummer Newman Taylor Baker is the new kid at only five years of service. Both musicians seem to have spawned to accompany the pianist, so closely aligned to his aesthetic do they seem. The wittily titled “Jazz Posture” shows off their chemistry to fine effect: Bisio and Baker begin the track with what sounds like free playing, bouncing the beat off the walls, before Shipp comes in, slowly reigning his players in, before taking off to the stratosphere himself. Oddly enough, once all three members follow their muse, they lock into an unspoken groove, bringing in a surprisingly accessibility despite everyone ostensibly in unfettered mode. Again, that’s the brilliance of Shipp’s world – creativity sparks chaos, chaos begets order, and it’s all shaken down until it sings.
That’s not to say Shipp doesn’t indulge in a nice bit of pandemonium from time to time – check out “Abandoned” or Spine,” though even those find a through line eventually – usually when the pianist introduces a melody, no matter how angular. But he and his cohorts are more likely to poke around in the corners of a tune, kicking up the dust and seeing what colors are underneath, than take a sledgehammer to the walls. Check out “A Mysterious State” or “Beyond Understanding,” songs that invite contemplation even as the volume level rises, songs to get lost in as the musicians examine their inner workings. When things get too heavy, the trio also explores pure beauty, as on “Stop the World,” on which Bisio matches his boss for lyricism, or the luminous “Sustained Construct.” They also bend jazz traditionalism to their own purposes, as with the Big Easy-spiced “Sly Glance.”
Shipp ends the record with the title track, a ten-minute adventure which features the rhythm section sticking closer to the rhythm than normal, which allows the leader to ripple the notes in whichever direction he fancies at the moment, pulling them back in, shooting them out in another direction, and never losing sight of the melodic message he’s trying to convey. Because that’s what he does – challenges his sidefolk and audience with playing that threatens to disintegrate, but never does. Shipp composes tunes meant to be explored as much as performed, and World Construct unequivocally, inevitably, brings that idea home.
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