I see Matthew Shipp walking around all the time; we live in the same neighborhood, New York’s Lower East Side. There’s no outward evidence that this is a man with a challenging mission — to reform the notion that jazz is a genre gone stale. But listening to Thirsty Ear’s The Blue Series Sampler: The Shape of Jazz to Come and any recent Blue Series release confirms the scope and ambition of this project.
Shipp is the artistic director of Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, a division of the label that, since 2000, has quietly been releasing very, very interesting albums fusing avant-jazz with hip-hop beats and production. He’s also the major player on the sub-series. He plays piano or keyboard on eight of the 12 songs that appear on The Blue Series Sampler: The Shape of Jazz to Come and seems to play on just about every Blue Series release.
The album cover tells the story. It’s a (blue-tinted) photo of several towering cranes sprouting from a building’s skeletal foundation — the shape of what’s to come. That title, by the way, is a ballsy reference to Ornette Coleman’s 1960 album with the same title, one in a string of early Ornette albums of then-shocking “free jazz.” The key word here is “synthesis.” Players like Shipp, William Parker, and David S. Ware provide the avant-jazz part of the equation, while deejays and production gurus like El-P, DJ Spooky, and Antipop Consortium bring beats, sampling and laptop programming.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But the Blue Series material carries the potential for real advancement of jazz and hip-hop music. It’s exciting, and jazz hasn’t felt exciting for a while now. The sampler itself, however, could be better. It appropriately opens with Shipp’s “Cohesion,” from his terrific album Equilibrium. Thus far, “Cohesion” stands as the driving, hypnotic anthem of the Blue Series — the best song it’s produced. Shipp’s tune is followed by one of the two Blue Series Consortium tunes on The Shape of Jazz to Come, propelled (of course) by Shipp’s driving synth. Antipop Consortium weighs in with the typically cool-sounding “Monstro City,” revealing them as pomo brainiancs as they scoff at linguistic conventions. Spring Heel Jack (Shipp, Evan Parker, and others) is the album’s stoner inclusion: weird samples and noise, all way chilled-out. El-P’s 10-minute “Sunrise Over Brooklyn” aims for the epic, but is repetitive without developing much, and is disappointingly dull.
The Shape of Jazz to Come strikes a decent balance between the nouveau jazz (beat and synth heavy) and jazz tending more toward ’60s and ’70s avant-garde (Coleman, Herbie Hancock, et al). William Parker Violin Trio’s “Scrapbook” dives into this far-out territory with occasionally exciting results, although Parker and company sometimes sound overwhelmed by Billy Bang’s screaming violin. The Blue Series Continuum’s upcoming The Sorcerer Sessions sounds worth getting, showing a contemporary classical bent. “Mist” is an eccentric cross between Kraftwerk and Terry Riley, featuring Shipp, William Parker, and Bang on a Can All-Stars’ Evan Ziporyn.
Truth be told, a lot of the Blue Series releases are stronger than this sampler gives the impression they may be. Picking the highlights of a label’s roster is a toughie, and tunes that will sell albums are generally the inclusions. But almost all this neo-fusion music is feels fresh and different, exciting and new. While the canonical ’60s jazz influences remain a constant, this mixture of the old and new is an exhilarating conflation.