Matthew Shipp has always been a rugged individualist as a pianist, an improviser, and most notably, as a musical thinker. In virtually any setting -- from solo dates, string trios, duos, and quintets to leader and sideman dates alike -- he's developed a methodically incessant manner of questioning sound, jazz, technique, timbre, sonority, culture, and science in his musicmaking.
At surface, Piano Song is a jazz piano trio album with frequent collaborator Michael Bisio on bass and relative newcomer Newman Taylor-Baker on drums. But Shipp isn't to be defined by traditional notions of musical inquiry -- especially when it comes to jazz. This is his last date as a recording artist for Thirsty Ear's Blue Series. He will continue to curate it, but his commitments lie elsewhere -- look at his catalog from the 2010s and you'll find his name on dates for no less than eight other labels. Shipp runs the gamut of his engagement systems here. The solo opener "Links," while brief, offers elements of classical composition, harmonic and dissonant scalar inquiry, space and balladic jazz, and it provides an intro for everything that follows. Bisio's walking bassline that introduces "Cosmopolitan" is strictly hard bop. Taylor-Baker's swinging snare skitter and cymbal work underscore that notion, but Shipp touches on everyone from Miles and Monk to Ellington and Waldron in his harmonic statement and solo. That mean left hand of his furtively rumbles in the darkness as light emanates from his right. The sparse trio improvisation "Blue Desert" locates itself between musical geographies like its physical counterpart does in the Sinai Peninsula, almost as an emanation. Shakers, arco bass, and fragmentary single and dual piano statements work around an idea and then into it, without ever stating it explicitly. The on-the-one rhythmic force of "Flying Carpet" allows for a chordal investigation of the tonal spaces between -- and outside -- the fingerpopping backbeat and occasional breaks and bass pulses. "Micro Wave" employs a percussive, Monk-esque statement intro before colliding headlong into Satie with interpolated trio interaction. Shipp's thundering chords both right and left are augmented by strident, humorous rhythmic complements. "Void of Sea" is speculative; Shipp's lower register notes echo into silence, and they're answered just before the fade by either bowed bass or whispering cymbals and brushed snare. It's not call and response, but question upon question. Resolution is admirably reserved, leaving the work wide open. The title track is a ballad that emerges from the shadows to state itself in suggestive Ellingtonian terms without overtly echoing them. The rhythm section's intimate swing extends the pianist's lines before they peel away and ultimately melt into silence to make way for new ones.
While far from a "straight-ahead" recording, Piano Song isn't an "avant-garde" set either. Those are poles, and Shipp's best work -- as evidenced here -- exists outside those contrasts. For those who haven't encountered him before, Piano Song is an excellent and accessible introduction that surrenders nothing in terms of creativity. For fans, this authoritative statement is a revelatory chapter from one of the most fascinating musicians since 1980s.