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Matthew Shipp 

Equilibrium

Wednesday, Feb 5 2003
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English poet W.H. Auden once observed that "the most exciting rhythms seem unexpected and complex, the most beautiful melodies simple and inevitable." Pianist Matthew Shipp has made a career out of reconciling these two elements. One of the most prolific artists of the last decade, the New York-based musician has a style that avoids the frenetic cacophony associated with progressive jazz, while still maintaining an unconventional bent. His lean, accomplished playing owes as much to French musical impressionist Erik Satie as it does to free-jazz icon John Coltrane.

On Equilibrium -- Shipp's fourth for Thirsty Ear's Blue Series, which he also curates -- the composer integrates ideas from his previous albums, fusing hip hop, electronica, and ambient music with jazz to achieve a new mode of expression. Throughout, Shipp resists the impulse to fuck things up just to be "different," allowing his melodies the virtue of simplicity. At the same time, his beautiful compositions rest on a foundation of tremendous rhythmic interplay. On tracks like "Nebula Theory," drummer Gerald Cleaver plays with formidable intricacy, while legendary bassist William Parker percolates around the beats, adding substance to Shipp's harmonic ideas. At the same time, the songs achieve an almost electronic downtempo vibe, with the kind of ethereal grooves that would be perfectly suited to the fragile, stoic vocals of Portishead's Beth Gibbons.

In this context, flamboyant solos and flashy displays of technique wouldn't work. Accordingly, Shipp plays as part of the ensemble -- eschewing hot dogging for simple, repetitive figures. Sometimes, as in "Nu Matrix," he lets single notes linger, mingling with the haunting tones of Khan Jamal's vibes.

Throughout Equilibrium, the musicians allow the pieces to develop according to their own DNA, with technique subordinated to emotion. In this way, Shipp and his ensemble achieve a balance between the complex and the simple, the unexpected and the inevitable.

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Anthony Bonet

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