Written by Joslyn Layne
With a unique, instantly recognizable style, pianist Matthew Shipp has been active on the international jazz scene since late 1980s. His boundary-less musical approach crisscrosses free jazz, elliptical post-bop, and modern classical music. He served as pianist in the David S. Ware Quartet during the early ‘90s before leading his own dates and recording duos with a variety of musicians including Roscoe Mitchell, Mat Maneri, and Ivo Perelman – whom he continues to work with. He released his solo debut, Symbol Systems, in 1995 as well as the quartet offering Critical Mass with violist Mat Maneri, William Parker, and drummer Whit Dickey.
He released many recordings for Hat (record label) – including 2001’s Expansion, Power, Release – and Thirsty Ear, including 2007’s Piano Vortex and 2013’s Piano Sutras. Shipp also records for France’s Rogue Art label which issued 2013’s Rex, Wrecks & XXX with Evan Parker, and 2015’s Our Lady of the Flowers with Sabir Mateen, Parker, and Gerald Cleaver. In 2016 Shipp began playing and recording in several bands for ESP-Disk with reedist Mat Walerian. They include Uppercut and Jungle, who each released a Live at Okuden volume that year, and Toxic, whose This Is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People appeared in 2017. In 2018, Shipp released the solo Zero. In 2021, he collaborated with Dickey and Parker for Village Mothership, and issued the solo Codebreaker, both for Tao Forms.
Born in 1960 and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, Shipp grew up around ‘50s jazz recordings. He began playing piano at the young age of five and decided to focus on jazz by the time he was 12. He played a Fender Rhodes in rock bands while privately devouring recordings by a variety of jazz players. His first mentor was a man in his hometown named Sunyata, who was enthusiastic about a variety of subjects in addition to music. Shipp later studied music theory and improvisation under Clifford Brown’s teacher Robert “Boisey” Lawrey, as well as classical piano and bass clarinet for the school band. After one year at the University of Delaware, Shipp left and took lessons with Dennis Sandole for a short time, after which he attended the New England Conservatory of Music for two years.
Shipp moved to N.Y.C. in 1984 and soon met bassist William Parker, among others. Both were playing with tenor saxophonist Ware by 1989. Meanwhile, Shipp had debuted as a recording artist in a duo with alto player Rob Brown on Sonic Explorations, recorded in November 1987 and February 1988. Shipp married singer Delia Scaife around 1990. He went on to lead his own trio with Parker and drummers Whit Dickey and Susie Ibarra. Shipp has led dates for a number of labels, including FMP, No More, Eremite, Thirsty Ear, and Silkheart.
Though Shipp was unable to tour during the COVID-19 pandemic, he saw the release of eight recent archival projects. These included the duo outing Amalgam with Perelman; Welcome Adventure! Vol. 1 with Daniel Carter, Cleaver, and Parker, and two solo piano outings, The Piano Equation, and the epic The Reward (Solo Piano Suite In Four Movements). Okuden Quartet (Walerian, Hamid Drake, Parker and Shipp) released Every Dog Has Its Day But It Doesn’t Matter Because Fat Cat Is Getting Fatter.
2021 was just as busy. He returned to touring, and he and Parker played on Francisco Mela’s Music Frees Our Souls, Vol. 1. He issued two duo outings for Rogue Art – Leonine Aspects with Evan Parker and Re-Union with William Parker. For the same label, he, Gerald Cleaver, and Joe Morris appeared in Paul Dunmall’s quartet for The Bright Awakening. In October, the Aum Fidelity-affiliated Tao Forms issued Village Mothership, a trio release by Dickey, Shipp, and Parker, and in November, a solo Shipp put out Codebreaker.
A very small sampling of Matthew Shipp’s extensive discography includes:
- Sonic Explorations (Cadence Jazz, 1988) Duo with Rob Brown (alto sax)
- Points (Silkheart, 1992) Quartet with Rob Brown (alto sax), William Parker (bass), Whit Dickey (drums)
- Circular Temple (Quinton, 1992) Trio with William Parker (bass), Whit Dickey (drums)
- Zo (Rise, 1994) Duo with William Parker (bass)
- Critical Mass (2.13.61, 1995) Quartet with Mat Maneri (violin), William Parker (bass), Whit Dickey (drums)
- Symbol Systems (No More, 1996) Solo piano
- Prism (Brinkman, 1996) Trio with William Parker (bass), Whit Dickey (drums)
- 2-Z (2.13.61, 1996) Duo with Roscoe Mitchell (saxophones)
- The Flow of X (2.13.61, 1997) Quartet with Mat Maneri (violin), William Parker (bass), Whit Dickey (drums)
- Before the World (FMP, 1997) Solo piano
- By the Law of Music (hatHUT, 1997) String Trio with Mat Maneri (violin), William Parker (bass)
- Thesis (hatOLOGY, 1997) Duo with Joe Morris (guitar)
- The Multiplication Table (hatOLOGY, 1998) Trio with William Parker (bass), Susie Ibarra (drums)
- Strata (hatOLOGY, 1998) Quartet with Roy Campbell (trumpet), Daniel Carter (saxophones, flute, trumpet), William Parker (bass)
- DNA (Thirsty Ear, 1999) Duo with William Parker (bass)
- Magnetism (Bleu Regard, 1999) Solo, duo, and trio performances with Rob Brown (alto sax, flute), William Parker (bass)
- Gravitational Systems (hatOLOGY, 2000) Duo with Mat Maneri (violin)
- Expansion, Power, Release (hatOLOGY, 2001) String Trio with Mat Maneri (violin), William Parker (bass)
- Songs (Splasc(h), 2002) Solo piano
- Nu Bop (Thirsty Ear, 2002) With William Parker (bass), Guillermo E. Brown (drums), Daniel Carter (sax, flute), FLAM (synths, programming)
- Equilibrium (Thirsty Ear, 2003) With William Parker (bass), Gerald Cleaver (drums), Khan Jamal (vibes), FLAM (synths, programming)
- The Trio Plays Ware (Splasc(h), 2004) Trio with William Parker (bass), Guillermo E. Brown (drums)
- One (Thirsty Ear, 2005) Solo piano
- Salute to 100001 Stars – A Tribute to Jean Genet (RogueArt, 2006) As the band Declared Enemy; with Sabir Mateen (alto sax, flute, clarinet), William Parker (bass), Gerald Cleaver (drums), Denis Lavant (spoken words)
- Piano Vortex (Thirsty Ear, 2007) Trio with Joe Morris (bass), Whit Dickey (drums)
- Un Piano (RogueArt, 2008) Solo piano
- 4D (Thirsty Ear, 2010) Solo piano
- Art of the Improviser (Thirsty Ear, 2011) Solo piano and trio with Michael Bisio (bass), Whit Dickey (drums)
- Rex, Wrecks & XXX (RogueArt, 2013) Duo with Evan Parker (tenor sax)
- Piano Sutras (Thirsty Ear, 2013) Solo piano
- I’ve Been to Many Places (Thirsty Ear, 2014) Solo piano
- Live at Okuden (ESP-Disk, 2015) As the band The Uppercut; with Mat Walerian (reeds)
- Live at Okuden (ESP-Disk, 2016) As the band Jungle; with Mat Walerian (reeds), Hamid Drake (drums)
- Invisible Touch At Taktlos Zürich (hatOLOGY, 2017) Solo piano
- This Is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People (ESP-Disk, 2017) As the band Toxic; with Mat Walerian (reeds), William Parker (bass, shakuhachi)
- Accelerated Projection (RogueArt, 2018) Duo with Roscoe Mitchell (tenor & soprano sax, flute)
- Zero (ESP-Disk, 2018) Solo piano
- Sonic Fiction (ESP-Disk, 2018) Quartet with Mat Walerian (reeds), Michael Bisio (bass), Whit Dickey (drums)