Before I get to Harmony and Abyss, I should raise a point about several recent albums Matthew Shipp has participated on in Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series. Shipp, of course, is curator of the series and acts as pianist extraordinaire for many of its albums, which often use guest contributors and a rotating cast of semi-regulars. As those who have followed the series know, the project has abrasively face-lifted jazz — sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing — brazenly mish-mashing talent from disparate genres. The product has occasionally sounded pretty fresh.
But maybe not as fresh as it could. On Blue Series albums that combined hip-hop artists Antipop Consortium and El-P, for instance, why didn’t the emcees step up on every song and rhyme over the jazz players and a beatbox? After all, it sounds transcendent on the handful of occasions Antipop attempts it on Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp. Why would emcee/producer El-P release High Water under his own name but not rap at all, choosing instead to (all-too-subtly) influence the sound from behind the boards? Why do the genres so often feel like magnets being pushed together? They often get close but can’t quite meet.
Shipp’s previous Blue Series solos, Nu Bop and Equilibrium, traffic in similarly genre-confused territory, often combining electronics with acoustic jazz playing to nice effect, but just as often consisting of relatively straight jazz or abstract ambience. Maybe the some-of-this, some-of-that attitude is Shipp’s Blue Series approach, but it dilutes the potential of these albums. And Harmony and Abyss is no exception.
I should make one thing clear: I like pretty much every song on this album (I love a couple), but Shipp’s reluctance to go all the way in any clear direction impedes Harmony and Abyss from succeeding as a coherent document. Songs like “Ion” and “Blood 2 the Brain” are hypnotic, hair-raising gems of the highest order. In each, Shipp elegantly plays over FLAM’s electronic beats and the mesmerizing, squiggly bass patterns of longtime collaborator William Parker. But then there’s also some rollicking yet controlled chaos (“Galaxy 105,” “3 in 1,” “Invisible Light”), quite a bit of haunting abstraction (“Virgin Complex,” “Amino Acid,” “Abyss”) and a pinch of spaced-out studio weirdness (“String Theory”), none of which make optimal use of the collection of players like the other two cuts do.
The album just doesn’t cohere. At the risk of allowing my personal taste to interfere, I’ll admit that I wish Shipp loaded up his Blue Series albums with more songs like “Ion” and “Blood 2 the Brain.” Given jazz’s notorious ivory-tower protectionism, I’ll wager he may not be allowed to play piano as indebted to classicism and minimalism with a drum machine on many jazz labels. And it sounds fucking great. It’s frustrating, but Harmony and Abyss is probably best treated like a thick book of poetry: A couple of poems here and there are nice, but don’t try to read the whole thing at once.