Awax museum with a pulse. That’s how one of Pulp Fiction‘s eloquent hoods describes Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a ’50s-theme restaurant where members of the wait staff impersonate period icons like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Marilyn Monroe. The phrase also describes much of the output from contemporary jazz’s celebrated “young lions.” Seldom pursuing new structures, they instead choose comfortable, well-worn paths into the past: One day it’s early American, the next cool postmodernism. When I hear one of these releases, nine times out of 10 I wonder if it’s not some Art Blakey or Miles Davis that got by me—only to find out it’s just a very competent modern-day emulation.
It hasn’t always been this way. In 1982, Elektra released a recording titled Young Lions that showcased several of the period’s emerging talents, including pianist Anthony Davis, trombonist Craig Harris, vibraphonist Jay Hoggard, flautist James Newton, and saxophonist John Purcell. Many of these early-’80s jazzers borrowed from tradition, but unlike the current crop, they did so without ceding their individuality. That’s not to say that today’s fledgling jazz musicians don’t sometimes offer personal expressions or hit grooves that make me weak in my knees—they do. But as we move towards the closure of jazz’s first complete century, I find myself most drawn to those musicians intent on exploring fresh forms: young lions who are seeking original ways to growl.
Matthew Shipp is one such musician, a self-taught pianist who’s recently come to prominence through his work with saxophonists David S. Ware and Rob Brown, themselves emerging talents. Shipp’s latest, Zo, is a four-part suite, one movement of which is a fresh look at an old jazz standard, George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Each of the disc’s sections is performed in collaboration with William Parker, an alumnus of pianist Cecil Taylor and seemingly new music’s bassist of choice.
The suite’s opening movement, “Zo 1,” is the sort of piece that causes the uninitiated to reach for some standard 12-bar blues in a hurry. It’s dedicated to Andrew Hill, one of a number of pianists—others include Mal Waldron, Horace Tapscott, and Cecil Taylor—whose stylistic influence can be detected in Shipp’s playing. The movement begins abruptly, thrusting the listener into an intense, in-progress exchange between Shipp and Parker. Because it has no preamble and only the barest hint of a theme, it provides few points of reference. “Zo 1” almost sounds like a warm-up, a mishmash of embellishments, graces, and devices that are forcefully delivered but ultimately fail to develop the melodic and harmonic motifs at which the piece hints. Still, Zo‘s rambling opening movement provides a fitting contrast to the pensiveness of the suite’s remaining—and more effectively developed—segments.
“Zo 2” ‘s unaccompanied piano part is almost classically contoured, and Shipp performs it with a stark elegance that is reminiscent of Tapscott. The piece’s primary theme derives from the timbres of the instrument’s middle and upper registers. “Zo 2” ‘s opaque rhythmic shapes are constructed and then deconstructed: A linear, melodic phrase resolves into a repeated single-note figure, and the theme returns, only this time its veil of optimism is crosscut with bleak tones from the piano’s lower registers. As if unwilling to choose between darkness and light, Shipp retreats into a sort of rondo-style blues vamp, beckoning to Parker’s plucked acoustic bass.
Parker’s sense of time is uncanny, and he provides “Zo 2” ‘s melodic cadence without making direct references to conventional tempo. His attack is full, yet precise; he doesn’t so much play tempo as play with it. While most bass players embellish plucked notes by sliding their fingers over the neck of the chosen string, Parker finds color and variation in a single note’s subtle overtones. On “Zo 2,” Parker’s plucked bass solo reveals previously subdued elements of the piece’s harmonic structure, in effect transforming a single-note bass figure into a fuller, more complete accompaniment. Shipp’s piano returns for the movement’s close, but this time the ambiguity between light and dark is resolved; “Zo 2” ends in a defiant succession of lower register block chords.
“Zo 3,” which begins with the same sullenness that concludes the preceding movement, is again introduced by lone piano. The piece’s dark undercurrents develop into fragmented sound clusters; it is here that comparisons between Shipp and Cecil Taylor, the modern-day father of avant-garde piano, suggest themselves. There is a similarity in the pianists’ speed, attack, and temperament—and both musicians have a penchant for employing their wrists and elbows. But the major difference between the two (excluding, of course, Taylor’s four decades of uncompromising artistic output) is their voicings: Taylor’s playing is densely interwoven, whereas Shipp aims for a leaner texture. With Shipp, you hear more notes than you miss.
“Summertime,” Zo‘s lone standard, again evokes comparisons to Taylor. In 1959, Taylor lifted the familiar riffs of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” and absorbed them into his own transfigured structure. In stark contrast to Taylor’s deconstruction, Shipp’s (re)construction of Gershwin’s classic provides a haunting affirmation of the original’s chord progression. Shipp repeatedly plays the standard’s opening verse, “Summertime, and the living is easy…hush little baby, don’t you cry,” transforming it into a series of intimate vignettes. Parker’s wandering arco provides the necessary foil for Shipp’s restrained respect: His bowed bass buzzes incessantly, like a zooming beetle disturbing the quiet hush of a lazy summer afternoon.
Of Zo‘s four movements, Shipp’s reimagining of “Summertime” comes closest to realizing the balance between past and present that eludes many of today’s young jazz musicians. Though the suite is not an unqualified success, Shipp’s no waxwork, and his Zo serves as a timely reminder that art is a living thing.