Matthew Shipp defines prolific in new jazz — the pianist appeared on a truckload full of seven different albums in 2002. His reputation runs toward the avant-garde, but his last two solo dates aim to marry downtown bop and (gasp!) squiggly electronic loops. This is hardly the first time such fantastic combinations have occurred. I wonder how the previous generation’s traditionalists judged the syrupy synthesizers funking up Headhunters, the Herbie Hancock fusion standard that has more than a little in common with Shipp’s new direction. But where Herbie saw jazz melting into all-over-the-floor Afro-disiac jive, Equilibrium finds safety in basic techno blues.
Shipp describes his four "Blue Series" albums: Pastoral Composure is a "straight ahead" entry, where New Orbit "functions as a pure…ambient soundscape," and Nu Bop "explore(s) the realm of …DJ culture meeting free jazz." So in his mind, Equilibrium is a culmination of sorts, featuring sound elements of all three previous sessions. Calling the new record a project overview is a little shortsighted, considering that each of these albums has its own merits. The static beats on Nu Bop made it the least listenable of the three, and though Shipp’s cross-genre adventures have been exciting, the band performs its best within the common free-jazz mold.
Weaker tracks rely too much on electro production by FLAM, sampling a single piano measure as Shipp and bassist William Parker improvise overhead. On "Vamp and Vibe" and "Cohesion," the group feels imprisoned by the rigid beats, and the groove loses its vitality as Shipp slides into smoother territory. The piano chord sampled every measure does not hold up to extended repetition, and the product begins to slightly resemble lite jazz funk. "The Root" works a more effective rhythm, joined by accompanying break beats and the album’s supporting actor: vibraphonist Khan Jamal, playing wonderfully both eerie and easy. "Nebula Theory" is my centerpiece, a discordant, beatless dark mood set by surreal vibe taps, bowing of the bass and heavy reverb. Tellingly, this song lights much more sinister than the faster numbers surrounding it.
"World of Blue Glass" and "The Key" provide further evidence of the unbelievably precise jazz unit Matthew Shipp runs. Ignore talk of "soundscapes," these slow keyboard swings/ acoustic laments showcase four master musicians flourishing in their element, and the music makes better organic shifts from one rhythm to another when not held down by FLAM’s drum machines. Save for "The Root," the production works best at its least obvious. His programmed hand leaves its noticeable mark nowhere on "The Key," and while this track could be just a jazz group going through the motions, they’re one of the most inspired bands you will hear today. Jamal’s vibe melody rings irresistibly like pop. FLAM closes the album with his best work "Nu Matrix," a distorted palate supporting impulsive piano runs like lo-fi improv from across the hall.
This record doesn’t sound too experimental because it isn’t. With a little imagination, some of these tracks could be a modern Bill Evans trio with vibes. And semi-improvised funk feels like nothing new — Weather Report dropped the jazz-rock bomb long ago. But then Shipp sits comfortably alongside players of the highest caliber, and he brings a rough edge to his piano workouts. One can only imagine the possible collaborations with alternate DJ/producers. Let Wynton Marsalis preach his tired standards to the Lincoln Center choir, drunk on power ties and overpriced wine. Matthew Shipp has already subscribed to the new school.