Thursday, April 28, 2011

In the zones: Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp at Jazz Standard

In their new duo, Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp are limiting themselves, and it sounds really good. Tonight I saw the pair, on alto saxophone and piano respectively, at Jazz Standard, where they were celebrating a new Aum Fidelity album, Cosmic Lieder. The record is very good; the show was much more than that—an arresting demonstration of a shared philosophy of improvisation, a series of sharp answers to age-old questions like "Where do we start?," "Who leads?," "Who follows?" and maybe most importantly, "Where do we end?"

As far as I can tell, the Jones/Shipp duo is an all-improv project, but it is not a free-for-all. These are songs, in a way—brief (averaging four minutes or so) and highly directional. The titular cosmos delivered with pop-song economy.

At Jazz Standard, the duo was incredibly decisive, each piece a single sustained idea, kicked around and prodded at but fixed, secure in its center. I think of Ghostbusters, when each of the three 'busters zaps Slimer and they slowly, steadily lower him into the trap in unison. It was that kind of teamwork.

Darius Jones already has a formidable reputation for gutsy free-jazz soul. (See Steve Dollar's fine Wall Street Journal profile.) If you've heard him in Little Women, you know it's not just soul that interests him, but maniacal, stabbing noise as well. The key thing to understand about Jones's work with Shipp, though, is that he's playing here with an almost heroic restraint. That's not to say that his ideas are restrained; he unleashed plenty of throaty shrieks and yelps tonight. It's more that he doesn't let them fully off the leash. This is not a blow-till-you-drop free-jazz concept (a good thing, in my opinion—we've got quite enough of those)—it's a concept of harnessing moments of wildness, violence boiling up and receding, leaving behind its scent. Wind the tension till it snaps, work through the tantrum and then bring it back to a whisper. Tonight Jones played with such tension, bearing down even at barely audible volumes. Always deciding, to do or to not do, to attack or to grit teeth and let the moment pass, winding, winding. Letting go and reining in. Making a song out of raw materials, letting their edges show but obeying an imaginary hourglass—when it's time to stop, you stop. You don't mourn the passing. You pause and you get on with what's next. These songs had an imperative to get somewhere, and almost without fail, they did.

Matthew Shipp made damn sure they did, actually. The pianist has a reputation for cantankerousness off the bandstand, and that tendency is often projected onto his playing. I feel like I've read descriptions that likened his improvising to boxing—I could've sworn the word "pugilistic" was used somewhere [NOTE: After the fact, I turned up this boxing-and-jazz piece by Shipp himself!]as though he was this swaggering, merciless hard-ass. And of course there are the vague Cecil Taylor comparisons. But specifically on the latter front, there's an immense difference, namely that Matthew Shipp goes to Herculean lengths to ensure that his collaborators sound good. (For all his strengths, CT is not, on the whole, what one would call a deeply sensitive collaborator.) Or, maybe I should say, he did so tonight—I suppose his trio (where he is the nominal leader and principal soloist) is a somewhat different story. With Jones he was like a shadow, cushioning and supporting at all times, providing just the right backdrop, vamping when need be, hammering out the framework so that Jones could dance within it. The word I kept thinking of, and writing down, was GRACIOUS. This was a duo music, i.e., neither player really soloed per se, but the roles were clear—Shipp was ground and Jones was sky. So the tension, and there was so much and it was so very exciting, came from the ideas and not from some sort of hackneyed clash between the players. Shipp is no pugilist—he's a master scene-setter, like some sort of production designer, laying out sumptuous period furnishings that help the actors immerse in their roles, accessing new truths.

The moods and textures were many. There was the eerie impressionism that is something like Shipp's signature. (Jones shouts-out this special Shippian vibe in this great joint appearance on Jason Crane's The Jazz Session, zeroing in on New Orbit, a truly fantastic 2001 record—maybe my favorite of Shipp's that I've heard.) Faster, choppier excursions. Hushed sonic mobiles with Shipp plucking the piano strings by hand. Jones always sounding so incredibly vocal, crying out with something there's not even a word for. "Anguish" seems too broad. It's like a simmering combination of mad and sad, wounded and vengeful. Bearing down immensely on the notes till they pop out. It was like soul surgery, with Shipp laying out all the tools on the operating table.

The two railed, in a way, against the semi-swanky jazz-club setting. They paused after each piece, just long enough to let you know it was indeed over, and the applause would begin. But they were onto the next one immediately—no time for basking or even, really, acknowledgment. I think about Keith Jarrett and how when I saw him at Carnegie Hall earlier this year, he bowed ponderously after each piece, enervating the room each time. Jones and Shipp weren't about to break the fourth wall. They were in the zone, or should I say in the zones, each brief song its own cosmos that for those four minutes or so was their shared, sole objective. Anyone improvising "open-endedly," "seeing how it goes," "relaxing," "emoting," doing whatever you're doing other than deciding where a piece should go and going there, NOW, take heed. However "experimental" you fancy yourself, you are competing with composed music; there is an imperative to pick an idea, to state that idea, make it stick and call "Scene." If further clarification is needed, consult your copy of Cosmic Lieder or the next Jones/Shipp duo gig.



Perceptive description of two of the best improvisers around. Matthew has created the 21st century standard for piano and Darius is quickly establishing one for alto. The two together are quite a team.

Jason Crane said...

Yup, you nailed it, Hank.

Nice to meet you last night and thanks for the link in this review.