What do Henry Rollins, Sonic Youth and New York City jazz critics have in common? They all dig Matthew Shipp. Shipp has made records for the activist-musician's 2.13.61 CD label, opened for the art-noise band and convinced the opinion-makers that he's one of the most important pianists since Cecil Taylor started banging the 88s into submission in the '60s. It's not just his unconventional, exhilarating and sometimes maddening music that draws them in. It's also his "who cares what anyone thinks" attitude.
The self-described "turn-of-the-century American pianist" first started studying jazz when he heard Ahmad Jamal, but don't look for an interpretation of "Poinciana" in Shipp's repertoire. The pianist took a left turn away from bebop decades ago to pursue the more dissonant side of jazz. He studied at the University of Delaware and later took lessons from Dennis Sandle, the same man who taught John Coltrane, James Moody and other important jazz figures.
After moving to New York in 1984, Shipp collaborated with other avant-garde musicians such as David S. Ware, but his musical personality was too forceful for mere sideman status. His strong will usually led him to assume the de facto leadership in a band. Inspired by everything from Mark Rothko's paintings to African drum music, Shipp's explorations are dark and dense, suggesting the work of a modern classical composer more than a jazz musician.
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The pianist has even compared his concerts to boxing matches. "There's the same fast transference of signals," he says. "There's the very complex type of pattern action that's generally, you know, its own space-time. The boxing match evolves second by second. There's the same mixture of improvisation and discipline but the unknown is being unfolded at really fast rates."
Shipp recently took a swing at a jazz legend when he was asked in an interview with an on-line music magazine what he thought Duke Ellington would say about his rendition of "Take the A Train."
"I have no idea," he said, "nor do I care, to be honest."
DiverseWorks and KTRU present Matthew Shipp with bassist William Parker at Rice University's Hamman Hall, entrance no. 13 off Rice Boulevard, on Friday, February 4, at 8 p.m. Call (713)335-3445 for tickets and more information. $15; $10, students; $8, DiverseWorks members.