A lot of tinkerers want to fix Houston's jazz scene, but Matthew Shipp says there's no need to break out the toolkit for something that either isn't broken or requires a larger repair than all the city's musical handy men and women can muster.
"So many players come out of there to begin with. As far as national attention, obviously Robert Glasper and Jason Moran come to mind, and let's not forget the great Joe Sample. So, Houston is doing something right."
That's comforting to hear, particularly from someone with Shipp's jazz resume. A New Yorker and a leading figure in the current free jazz scene, Shipp isn't just turning a keen observational eye on the scene here, he'll be part of it, at least for a night, when he plays Ovations Saturday as a special guest of locals, The Core Trio.
"Thomas (Helton), the bassist and leader of The Core Trio, plays a lot with a friend of mine, another Houston musician, the extremely gifted pianist Robert Boston. Thomas has also done a concert in New York with my good friend, the great bassist, William Parker. Both Robert and William said very good things about Thomas, so when he contacted me I was very open to doing things with him," Shipp explained.
"The Core Trio is a very, very special unit, a very balanced collection of different personalities that all work for the benefit of the music. There are no huge egos on the bandstand with this group," he continued. "There is such a balance of fire and imagination and restraint. It's very unusual."
That is high praise for the locals from one of jazz's true originals. That sounds hyperbolic, but "unique and recognizable" and "stunning in originality" are some terms authorities like AllMusic and Jazziz Magazine have used to describe Shipp's playing. He's so prolific he once suggested he'd never record again and has dozens of albums in his discography, most recently I've Been To Many Places, which released in September.
Shipp started playing piano at age six. He's attached in a six degrees way to some of the music's biggest innovators - John Coltrane (private lessons from 'Trane's sax instructor, Dennis Sandole), trumpeter Clifford Brown, who played with Max Roach, Lionel Hampton and Sonny Rollins, among others (Shipp's mother was a friend of Brown's) and so on. His ear and his mind for the music were established early in life and he's taken that template and fashioned something wholly new from it, according to Thomas Helton.
"All musicians and artists should know about Matt Shipp. He is the quintessential jazz musician of our time," Helton said. "He's not another derivative of jazz history, but an innovator expanding on the ideas and concepts of America's own art form."
If anyone's as excited as Helton about Shipp playing for Houston's jazz fans, it'd be surprising. For those who aren't entirely familiar with jazz or this particular strain of it, Helton encourages you to be adventurous as a listener. Like someone courageous enough to nibble an Andrew Zimmern- worthy delicacy, it'll go down much easier and taste much sweeter if you shelve the preconceptions.
"Come in with an open mind and a thoughtful ear," Helton said. "For general music enthusiasts, it will be tough to understand if you have too many preconceptions of 'jazz' or 'free jazz.' Jazz fans and musicians will have an easier time, but it is difficult to get past the 'They are just wiggling their fingers and making funny sounds.'"
"I have played a few times in Houston and always had a decent crowd and a very knowledgeable group of listeners," Shipp said. "Not surprising. In the day, KTRU was one of the best radio stations in the USA, so I know there is an artist, jazz, new music community in Houston."
Shipp says he and The Core Trio are like-minded and play well together. Their joint efforts can be heard on The Core Trio with Matthew Shipp. Helton and bandmates Seth Paynter and Joe Hertenstein recorded with Shipp, did two passes and chose the first, a 42-minute improv, as its record. As Helton says, it's an example of how musicians "can create, from no structure, a cohesive piece of music with a beginning, middle and end. Themes, motives and form. If you give it a chance you will be transformed."
Back to Houston's jazz scene. Some see it as ailing. Shipp said if that is true it has less to do with the city, its jazz musicians and its listeners than music as a whole.
"Jazz in general is having a hard time of it and most of the problems are rooted in structural things that go way beyond anything a particular municipal area can do," he noted. "And, a lot of the problems are rooted in just how sick society is in general. Any serious art form will have problems in a society this shallow. So, Houston just needs to keep being Houston."
The Core Trio hosts Matthew Shipp at 8 p.m. on Saturday, November 22 at Ovations, 2536 Times Boulevard. Admission is $10, $5 for students with I.D.
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