Matthew Shipp Chamber Ensemble
The Gospel According to Matthew & Michael
The title and group name of the latest Matthew Shipp release may be misleading—although Shipp’s trio is billed as a chamber ensemble, it’s not playing classical pieces as one might expect, and there’s little evidence of any gospel or markedly spiritual influences, despite being called The Gospel According to Matthew & Michael.
The album is 15 chapters of fascinating free-form improvisations in the realm of adventurous jazz, rocketing away from the routine head / solo / head / solo / lather / rinse / repeat formula. While some moments are far removed from any traditional notion of jazz, beyond free jazz into the nebulous free improv stratosphere, the playing is informed by the musicians’ formidable technical chops and building blocks that are crucial for creating nuanced, articulated and complicated excursions.
Simply being a great, creative player isn’t enough in ensemble settings, where a weak link can easily drag down the proceedings; that’s why it’s a crucial decision for a bandleader to carefully pick his sidemen, and Shipp has assembled an outstanding trio. Bassist Michael Bisio has been a longtime collaborator with Shipp, with effortlessly captivating dialogues with Shipp’s idiosyncratic piano style, and violist Mat Maneri (son of acclaimed reedist Joe Maneri) is a great fit here, with boundless energy, curiosity and inventive string playing.
From a performance standpoint, it’s an album with diverse moments, from driving, fierce bass solos to methodically wandering piano-string plucks to violent col legno wood-on-string notes to sauntering bass lines and dexterous piano scampering; however, that’s only half the picture, and the many moods it evokes—excitement, confusion, measured delicate sensitivity, shared warmth—tells more of the story.
The players seem to have an innate sense of balance, constantly listening to each other, adjusting and adding in constructive ways; it’s an organic energy pulled from thin air, like the musical equivalent of spontaneous generation.
Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud
The most beautifully hypnotic album heard by this writer in recent memory is from a West African ensemble in the Azawad territory, performing the music heard in nomad camps in the Sahara that goes by the generic term “isswat.”
The lead singer—a woman named Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud—is accompanied by clapping, stomping and drumming on an upturned bowl, while male singers provide a low vocal drone and occasionally let out a piercing yell of excitement. While Inamoud is clearly an untrained vocalist, her delivery is entrancing, passionate and fluid, singing songs about burning hearts, SUVs and “devil’s love”—which is non-platonic but not necessarily sinister—peppered with metaphors that will certainly sound odd to Western audiences.
Isswat is one of two albums issued by Sahelsounds and Mississippi Records that were originally recorded in 2008, being some of the only known studio recordings of this kind of music. Some of the tracks are songs repeated from person to person, while others are improvised and are free to ramble in compelling and unusual ways.
It might be a surprise that these acoustic songs are not centuries-old tales but are squarely set in the modern day, among modern concerns and inventions, and the translations of the Tuareg language are fascinating to read.
In “Wana L’Ancien,” possibly the most captivating moment of the album, a woman is described as having a cute smile and “better than a 4x4 Toyota.” “Adyamina” mentions revolutionaries with assault rifles, among tanks and missiles, but it also offers poetic lines like, “Love is a dry tree from which shade can be created.”
A strong theme throughout Isswat is yearning for a possibly unobtainable, handsome man; Inamoud sings “I love him more than his mother does,” in “Ahaylalou,” and another man is described as looking “sharp when he is hunting gazelles with a Toyota truck.”
The frustration of being in love with someone who is taken is conveyed as “like drinking boiled water when you are thirsty.” While we have become accustomed to the clichés of songwriting in the western world, Isswat is a refreshing, animated glimpse of tumultuous Saharan romance with a spellbinding flow.