For all his “out” jazz credentials, pianist Matthew Shipp is ultimately a melodist. Even within his most freeform improvisations, Shipp is likely to find and develop a melodic motif for as long as possible. And in his trio’s Sunday night appearance at Bohemian Caverns, part of Transparent Productions’ Sunday@7 series, he grappled engagingly with the melodies of jazz’s greatest tunesmith.
“This is billed as a Duke Ellington tribute,” Shipp pointed out at the beginning of the night. (It was two nights before Ellington’s 115th birthday.) “Duke is an idol of mine; the major thing I got from him is you have to be yourself. We’re just going to do our regular set, but you might hear a few beams of Ellington arise to the surface.”
It was more than “a few beams.” Shipp, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey unfurled two long, winding improvisations that from the start echoed Ellington in the pianist’s thick, luxurious chords and heavy rhythmic feel. Shipp ran through a gantlet of lyrical passages — though he often cloaked them in a ferocious hand-over-hand attack on the keys that looked like a swimmer’s crawl.
Out of this sturm und drang first came a quote from Ellington’s “C Jam Blues”; then, from a tango-like syncopation (which Dickey supplemented with clattering cymbals), the theme from “Take the A Train” emerged. It soon became a full treatise on “A Train,” Shipp repeating its primary phrases in between his explorations of its darker undertones and Bisio’s imperious bass statements.
The second piece began with a long solo from Bisio, his clipped, low-register staccato and lightning-fast runs making frequent suggestions of another Ellington tune, “In a Sentimental Mood.” When Shipp and Dickey entered, they shifted instead to Shipp’s own “Psychic Counterpart,” as catchy and motif-driven as Ellington’s best.
It didn’t last, leading first to ensemble vamping and then to a foursquare rock beat on which Dickey took a thumping, almost military solo. When Shipp reentered, he returned to “In a Sentimental Mood,” though with little of Ellington’s sweetness. Shipp did at times play delicate bits of the theme, and variations thereof, only to have Bisio and Dickey slash through it with violent beats; more often, the pianist turned the pretty melody into an adrenaline-fueled confrontation.
True to his words, Shipp never abandoned his individuality in the performance. From his ringing, dissonant chords and slapping left hand to his hunched-shoulder stance on the piano bench, his personality was so commanding that it steered Bisio and Dickey at every turn (even if the relationship was difficult at times to hear). But Shipp’s affection for Ellington was also on display — in his words as well as his explorations.
“Thank you,” he said to the applauding audience as his first set ended. “And long live the Maestro. In heaven.”
West is a freelance writer.