Matthew Shipp Trio release a striking new album, Swans look back to their exploratory past
Matthew Shipp Trio
The Conduct of Jazz
New York jazz pianist Matthew Shipp had a revelatory day in 1983, when his individualistic style burst forth in an instant, after years of playing classical music and straight-ahead jazz.
Shipp has built a remarkable career from his unique and recognizable style with bold turns and strong articulations, followed by liberated scampering; well-versed with the jazz tradition, Shipp understands the rules so that he can break them and add to the ever-expanding vocabulary of jazz.
His latest album is The Conduct of Jazz with a trio configuration, with frequent collaborator bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, and one striking thing is the use of head melodies that are pointedly memorable—more catchy than complicated.
However, with these relatively simple themes, the inevitable free-jazz departures that follow allow the contrasting approaches to seem that much more dramatic. The trio darts between the familiar and unfamiliar with a sense of balance, making the listener understand that both are needed for the group’s particular dynamic.
On the album’s title track, the playful melody is played forcefully and deliberately by Shipp, with discordance used as if it were a mocking defiance—like thumbing your nose but not in an aggressively antagonistic way. But, no matter how abstract Shipp gets, he plays in an intentioned manner; toward the piece’s end, Bisio offers furious and articulated scampering with his keenly enunciated dexterity before the trio wraps it up.
“Ball in Space” begins with a wispy bass intro, adding a shroud of mystery, and Shipp’s low piano clusters later in the track sound out like sinister chimes. Newman Taylor Baker’s drumming is stunningly fluid and constantly changing with a charged, curious swiftness, never falling into predictable patterns.
The final 12-minute track, “The Bridge Across,” offers exhilarating yet measured movement, with short monotonic segments followed by salient deviations to magnify the differences; unexpectedly, it ends with ghostly bass sounds and a more reserved, even stately, piano approach, wrapping up another Shipp album of fascinating internal opposition and frolicking melodies played with conviction.
White Light from the Mouth of Infinity / Love of Life: Deluxe Edition
Swans founder Michael Gira explained to the music blog Flowers in a Gun the group’s name: “Swans are majestic, beautiful looking creatures…with really ugly temperaments.” Since 1982, the group Swans has maintained a distinct identity through numerous aesthetic changes while keeping everything dark and deathly serious.
To summarize just its first decade, the band has gone from hostile no-wave growling (Filth) to a punishing death-march style (Cop) to a more melodic yet still harrowing approach (Children of God) to an acoustic, relatively accessible major-label dalliance (The Burning World) to the two albums at hand, White Light from the Mouth of Infinity and Love of Life, recently reissued as a Deluxe Edition as both a 3-CD set and a 3-LP/1-CD box.
Disparate postures are conveyed on White Light, from authoritative, self-righteous stances (“Better Than You,” “You Know Nothing”) to naked, pathetic scenes, like on the compelling track “Failure”; that song plods through with a somewhat clumsy vocal cadence in Gira’s deep, unnervingly quasi-rustic voice, featuring spoken-sung lines like “I saw my father crying / I saw my mother break her hand on a wall.”
Love of Life is punctuated with untitled interludes, its title track a rush of intense momentum, downright speedy for a Swans song, featuring a touch of hellhound gospel, a precursor for Gira’s post-Swans band Angels of Light. A wealth of extra material is on the bonus CD, including tracks from the Love of Life / Amnesia EP, starting with the entrancing, nearly-8-minute version of “Amnesia,” live tracks and half of the album Ten Songs for Another World by World of Skin, a Gira/Jarboe side project.
By this time in its career, the band had emerged from the distorted sonic filth and showered itself off, offering a more refined, majestic style but with the same amount of internal bitterness and ugliness—perhaps like an aural analog to Pasolini’s exquisite yet depraved late-period films, and true to Gira’s aforementioned band name explanation.