Q&A: Matthew Shipp On His Early New York Days, Getting Shit For Playing Electronics, And Black Music Disaster
When AUM Fidelity head Steven Joerg told the Voice that "Giants walk among us and you got to fucking pay attention," it was absolute that avant-garde jazz pianist Matthew Shipp was in his canon. Alongside the likes of William Parker, David S. Ware, Daniel Carter, Roy Campbell, Joe Morris, and Sabir Mateen, Shipp is an ideal example of a musician who not only lives and breathes the music, but does so with New York City's vim and vigor as well.
The bespectacled pianist arrived here in 1984, met kindred spirit Parker shortly thereafter and immediately cemented himself into the scene. But while Shipp is renowned across the globe as avant-garde royalty, he exudes a sensibility of punk and independent ideology. One of his earliest LPsa duo record with Parker called Zowas originally released on a tiny punk rock label before being reissued by Henry Rollins' 2.13.61 imprint in the mid-'90s. His trajectory then led him to another seminal underground label notorious for Amerindie noise-rockHomestead Records, where his rapport with Joerg, then the label's manager, took shape.
Recently, Shipp hit his 50th year and in his "old fogey" years (as he calls them), he's still tacking the unconventional, and unapologetically so. He's gotten shit in the past from jazz extremists who rag on his use of electronics, but Shipp has retorted with the intrepid collaboration called Black Music Disaster, the name taken from a negative review of a concert Parker had performed with Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton in Italy in which the reviewer referred to the concert as a "black arts disaster." Recorded in a café amidst a residency in London, Shipp (playing Farfisa organ) is joined by Spiritualized's J Spaceman, Spring Heel Jack sound manipulator John Coxon and drummer Steve Noble for an epic 38 minutes of Metal Machine Music-like cataclysmic noise squalor and psych-drone damage. Meanwhile, Shipp's other new LP proves the antitheses to Black Music Disaster's cacophonous dystopia. Elastic Aspects features Shipp on piano with regulars Michael Bisio (bass) and Whit Dickey (drums), in albeit slightly more controlled environs, yet punctuated by the trio's titillating experimentalism, adventurous phraseology and stunning cohesion.
Sound of the City spoke to Shipp to talk his early days in New York, Black Music Disaster, his imminent "greatest hits" record and the "big surprise" he has in store.
I wanted to talk about your early days here in New York. When did you move here?
September of '84.
When you arrived in New York, did you know other musicians here you hooked up with?
Yeah. There was a drummer. Frank Bambarra is his name. I had known him from Boston years before I lived here so I moved in with him right away.
Where were you living?
Ludlow Street. [Laughing]
What did you think of the Lower East side back then? You were in your early 20s, right?
You know, it was what it was. I wanted to move to New York and be a jazz musician so probably more than like what I thought the lower east side...actually, I loved it. There was so much history in the neighborhood. I ended up a few months later actually living with Judy Sneed in Charlie Parker's old apartment on 10th Street, his old house. I lived there for a couple of months. But it was cool. There was lot of energy in the neighborhood. When I moved there, Basquiat and people like that were around and it was just a very energetic and open scene in a way in the Lower East side.
Were you immediately engulfed in that scene, such as knowing and hanging with people like Basquiat?
Not exactly, but I was around a bunch of scenes.
Did any remnants of the jazz loft scene exist by the time you got to New York?
That was dead. That was the '70s.
What was happening here as far as a jazz scene goes in the mid-'80s?
I'm not sure. I just came here ready to experience New York, so I was excited for anything. I knew I wanted to get into the scene I'm intoI guess what's now known as the Vision Fest scene and William Parker, that whole world, the Lower East side. I hate the word free jazz but for lack of a better word, the Lower East side free jazz scene. I definitely came here with an agenda to get involved with that scene.
When did you feel you first got involved in that scene?
Probably day one [laughing]. I think a day or two after I moved here, I met Denis Charles on the street and talked to him. Then I met Frank Lowe and I met Billy Bang, who I had met before when I lived in Delaware and I had come up to New York for a couple of concerts. But I was meeting people from day one.
When did you meet William Parker? Were there gigs you played or went to that proved vital to your trajectory?
I don't remember exactly but it would have been within the first week I was here. I met William pretty early on and I just started talking to him and we actually hit it off pretty early. Sometime in the first year that I was in New York I probably did a performance with him. But I also had a producer. There's a community center [5C Cultural Center] on the Lower East side and it's run by a guy named Bruce Morris. Back then, he wasn't running [5C], but I had met him before I moved here and he was kind of a patron of mine when I moved here and he used to produce concerts for me. SO he would bring in [people]. I played with the great cellist Abdul Wadud with Leo Smith and Steve McCall They were all concerts that Bruce Morris had organized.