It appears that Matthew Shipp has given up on the idea he was suggesting in interviews in 2001 -- namely, that he would soon cease recording. Perish the thought! In the past couple of years Shipp has not only appeared on releases by such avant jazz stalwarts as David S. Ware and Joe Maneri, but has also released several fine albums of his own on Thirsty Ear, for whom he curates the Blue Series of experimental jazz recordings. The series has yielded some very interesting results, from free jazz musicians perform in more traditional contexts to the incorporation of electronics into free jazz projects, including appearances by electronic musicians Spring Heel Jack and DJ Spooky, and rock musician Jason Pierce of Spiritualized. While such an eclectic mix of approaches would ordinarily suggest results of variable quality, the vast majority of Blue Series recordings have a been chock full of musical riches. Equilibrium
is no exception.
Here, Shipp plays piano exclusively, joined by bassist William Parker, drummer Gerald Cleaver, vibraphonist Khan Jamal and synthesizer-playing programmer FLAM. While there were moments of brilliance on Nu Bop, his previous album, its use of electronics seemed, in places, to be a tad thickly-layered. Here, FLAM's contributions are better integrated into the sound of the whole ensemble, and there is more piano in the overall texture, which makes a nicer balance. As much as I hope that Shipp's experimentation with the use of synthesizers in his music continues, I would sorely miss his beautiful touch on the ivories were he to refrain from playing the acoustic piano.
The selections found on Equilibrium show the wide range of the musicians' capabilities, as well as their broad gamut of stylistic interests. The title track, which opens the album, features a solo intro by Shipp, including cascades of arpeggios that seem akin to the harmony utilized by some 20th century French composers -- Messiaen, etcetera. This gradually gives way to more of a modal jazz sensibility as the rest of the ensemble enters. "Vamp to Vibe", as one might guess, is a showcase for Jamal, who supplies solos of lightening virtuosity. "Nebula Theory" seems to echo some of the microtonal and textural experiments found on the Maneri Ensemble's 2002 release Going to Church, an album on which Shipp appeared. "World of Blue Glass" is a lovely ballad, a tune with the potential to be a new Standard. Then there are the ephemeral charms of "Portal", clocking in at 1:13, with just enough time to set up its groove. One wishes it would have stayed a while longer, but I guess it is never a bad thing to leave us wanting more.
"The Key", with its swinging pizzicato bass line from Parker and Jamal's harmonic soloing on top, is most reminiscent of some of the more straight-ahead work on 2001's New Orbit album. It almost seems as if the free jazzers are out to beat the jazz conservatives at their own game with tunes like these, and Shipp's group shows that they are more than qualified to play in this vein. On the other hand, "Nu Matrix", "The Root" and "Cohesion" all seem to take their cue from the world of electronic beats and synthetic timbres found on Nu Bop. "Nu Matrix" opens with some eerie noises, a post-tonal vibraphone/synth duet. It isn't until two minutes in that Shipp joins with a melancholic, angular melodic line, accompanied by echoed, wah-like synth treatments. It's a haunting way to close out the album.
Given this variety, one might wonder if Equilibrium coheres as a single statement or if it is a Po-Mo hodgepodge. I'd opt for the former. In the first place, the artistic integrity and abilities of the musicians featured here, and their uniformly high level playing throughout the disc, holds the listener's interest regardless of the stylistic context. Furthermore, it is refreshing to encounter an album that does a number of different things well rather than sticking to a tried and true formula.
The recordings in the Blue Series continually remind us that jazz is never better than when it is striving to create something new -- when it is seeking a way to extend the tradition with new sounds, new sensibilities and attractive new compositions. Equilibrium succeeds on all three counts, much to Shipp and company's credit.