In theory, the title of Matthew Shipp's new double concert album, Art of the Improviser, holds up.
Long heralded as the piano voice of a new jazz generation, Shipp has been at the forefront of a brave new movement of improvisers as both soloist and ensemble leader. Some of his projects dabble with DJs and electronics while others steer decidedly toward the avant garde. But Shipp's own sense of performance daring has never diminished. Having turned 50 in December, he continues to have a rich and restless improvisational sensibility in his music.
But Art of the Improviser is far more than what its title suggests. There is a strong compositional base to much of the album, which, in turn, feeds the fire of the improvisation. There also are numerous references, both in repertoire and in the stylistic extremes that bolster his piano work, to a previous jazz generation. But that only adds to the drama and distinction that build throughout Art of the Improviser.
The album's first disc is a beefy trio performance featuring bassist Michael Bisio and longtime drummer Whit Dickey. The opening The New Fact rumbles and builds like the early '70s recordings of McCoy Tyner. A leaner, darker trio exchange later emerges out of 3 in 1 but not before Bisio establishes his presence with a crisply brittle improvisation of his own on bass.
A return to the first movement of the title suite from Shipp's 1992 album, Circular Temple, nicely scrambles Art of the Improviser's melodic thrust before a dizzying variation of Take the A Train stumbles out of the rhythmic chaos like a drunk from a barroom. It's a stirring but immensely playful mash-up of styles and jazz sensibilities.
The second disc comes from a solo performance that Shipp gave in New York last June (roughly 2½ months after the trio gig), and is it ever a beaut. The disc is divided into six tunes, but it is performed as a singular suite that uses the opening 40 as a reference point. From there, the references again fly by. Tyner. Thelonious Monk. There are even a few fleeting hints of Art Tatum in the disc's more animated moments.
But mostly Shipp references himself through several lyrical themes that continually revisit the suite. It might be a descending riff here or an almost noir-like trickle of notes there. They all are devices that set up the muscular piano intent that arrives as the suite moves from a largely unrecognizable Fly Me to the Moon to the nocturnal chambers of Wholetone.
It all makes for a recording of fascinating dynamics. Sure, the improvisational prowess is remarkable. But it's only one component of the remarkable art at the heart of Shipp's music.