Throughout his career, pianist/improviser/composer Matthew Shipp has questioned, examined, and tested sound as a physical, spiritual, and philosophical element. This is most prevalent on his solo piano recordings, where spaces between improvisation and composition, and his instrument's physicality and the space surrounding it, interact with one another and dissolve. A listen through last year's gorgeous Piano Song revealed the formal side of this aesthetic, while 2006's One was so investigatory in nature, it could easily be this date's precursor.
Zero reveals Shipp simultaneously at his most focused and playful. Six of these 11 tracks contain the word "zero" in their titles, but even so, it's far from didactic linkage. The pieces run from a little more than one-and-a-half to just over six-and-a-half minutes. They range over and through many styles, dynamic juxtapositions, harmonics, and techniques. The abundance of musical information in the opening title track speaks volumes: Shipp touches on Glenn Gould's readings of the Goldberg Variations, a Harold Arlen standard, knotty improvisation, crystalline tonal explorations, and mutant chordal statements that all, somehow, not only hold together but gel into a thoroughly enjoyable whole. "Abyss Before Zero" opens with a series of triads, but within a minute touches on Satie, Debussy, and Sibelius without abandoning its limpid core. "Pole After Zero" weds the modern vanguard classical tradition to Thelonious Monk's warmly harmonic extrapolations and an innate sense of the eternal nature of Ellingtonian swing. "Cosmic Sea" is a haunting poetic ballad of filled with mystery and scalar inquiry, while "Zero Skip and a Jump" spills patterns of middle and lower middle register arpeggios into one another with solitary chords signifying the jump from one passage to another before it simply stops. "Zero Subtract from Jazz" commences as a blues-tinged ballad, but proves deceptive as it quickly transforms itself into complex tonal and harmonic investigation. Shipp downright messes with the blues on "Blue Equation" as it turns all component notes and implied rhythmic parts of the standard I-IV-V progression into a systematic exposition of the mysteries that lie inside it. The brief "Pattern Emerge" and "Ghost Pattern" are not just linked by title: The free high middle and upper register of the instrument are offered with restrained dynamics and offered in fleet labyrinthine lines in the former, and with unified, dramatic, expansive chords in the latter. Closer "After Zero" is a direct companion to the title track and "Abyss Before Zero," utilizing spacious, darkly tinged chords, rhythmic variations, and arpeggios that bridge these pieces while climbing out of them into a new space. On Zero, Shipp displays an encyclopedic knowledge of the piano's construction as well as the sonic and musical possibilities it affords, but calls them all into question -- including the nature of solo improvisation itself. Despite being so densely packed with information one can engage in it repeatedly for discovery, Zero is Shipp's most accessible solo recording.