The opening two minutes of Elastic Aspects, the typically engaging new album by the Matthew Shipp Trio, are something of a tease.
Titled Alternative Aspects, the prelude hardly features Shipp at all. It instead favors the bowed-bass work of Michael Bisio, which sounds as if it could be emanating from a cave, along with subtle mallet percussion colors from longtime drummer Whit Dickey.
Then comes the payoff, Aspects (well, there is something to be said for continuity in the titles). At once, Shipp's commanding piano tone is unleashed. It is bright but autumnal, precise but expansive, and full of traditional spirits while following a muse that is very much his own.
In terms of sheer piano color, Shipp has worked steadily at this sound for years. It reached an initial pinnacle on the brilliant album One in 2008. One had a playfulness and tough-knuckled bounce that brought the great Thelonious Monk to mind. But successive recordings revealed just how unique and expressive Shipp's sound was. That pensive yet exact lyricism immediately enveloped the listener, making Shipp seem less like the avant garde warrior that many have proclaimed him to be and more of an honest jazz journeymen seeking to perfect and build on his sound.
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That isn't to say he doesn't explore some torrential free-jazz downpours on Elastic Aspects. Flow Chart again opens with bowed bass, but its sound has grown vastly more unsettled than at the album's onset. Again, Shipp sits the tune out, using it as a set-up for the impish, Monk-style mischief of Mute Voice. Here, piano dances about like a wandering feather for a little more than three minutes with modest drum support from Dickey. It's fanciful in the best sense, before bass and the deeper piano ramble of Explosive Aspects take hold. Once Dickey is added to the agitation, the tune lives up to its name.
Given such unrest, one might expect a tune like Raw Materials to bear an even greater primal force. Instead, it is a delicious piano reverie. There are hints of Bud Powell and even early Chick Corea in Shipp's playing. But it's the spacious design of the composition that makes it so distinctive. Shipp's best works operate almost as ballets, mixing musicianship that runs from the overtly playful to the more deceptively fractured. Here, Shipp and Bisio team for a melody that is almost childlike before bending it ever so gently as the tune sails around some rough lyrical curves.
Everything merges on the album-closing Elastic Eye, which opens as a battle cry (complete with Dickey's militaristic snare rolls) before the tune morphs into a brittle processional that marches with deep left-hand piano rolls. From there, the music ebbs and flows like an ocean. Like most of Elastic Aspects, the tune is bright and adventurous one moment, stormy and delightfully threatening the next.