Stylistically, Matthew Shipp and Pat Metheny hail from different ends of the jazz cosmos.
Shipp, stubbornly pigeonholed by many critics as avant-garde, remains one of the most original voices to emerge on jazz piano in decades. Metheny is a guitarist who has weaved post-bop into jazz gold with his band while moonlighting over the years with esteemed jazz elders including Charlie Haden and Ornette Coleman.
Both artists have now released new recordings, created entirely on their own. For Shipp's 4D, that means interspersing crafty original works with highly original takes of jazz standards for an absorbing solo piano recording. For Metheny's Orchestrion, that means redefining the term "one man band" with music generated on an array of guitars, pianos, marimbas and "custom fabricated acoustic mechanical instruments."
Shipp's 4D is a delight through and through. As engaging as his ensemble recordings have been in recent years, his recent solo albums — in particular, 2006's sublime One — are revelatory works in which technique and temperament form an instrumental voice that, despite its unaccompanied setting, sounds full and complete.
Take 4D's The Crack in the Piano's Egg, a joyride that rumbles down an especially devious side road. The spirit of Thelonious Monk sits in the back seat, as it does on so many of Shipp's more mischievous tunes. But the playing bumps, rumbles and regales with a voice all its own. Ditto for the wonderfully slippery flight patterns of Blue Web in Space. On Equilibrium, the tension is contained before taking flight in darker impressionistic circles.
And the covers? Try a stormy and heavily percussive Frere Jacques, a beautifully immediate and at times pensive Autumn Leaves and a deeply churchy (but sadly brief) What a Friend We Have in Jesus that suggests that an entire album of Shipp-style spirituals might be worth exploring in the future. For now, though, 4D is a smart, distinctive and altogether daring piano adventure.
The design and intent behind Metheny's Orchestrion isn't half as satisfying as the accessible and joyous music it embraces. Metheny engages in a dizzying practice here of creating a solo-band sound on instruments that, the bio material states, are "struck, plucked and otherwise played via the technology of solenoid switches and pneumatics" created with "a brilliant team of scientists and engineers."
Uh, we're talking jazz here, right? Despite the academic indulgences seemingly surrounding its creation, Orchestrion sounds like a new Pat Metheny Group record. You still hear the rich Jim Hall-style guitar lyricism, sweeping piano-and-keyboard melodies and lightly layered percussion designs with a soft spot for marimba. And it's all played by Pat.
The album is a lovely listen and a grand reminder of Metheny's gift for compositional melody and efficient orchestration. Just try to forget that the whole thing reads like a lab experiment.