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February 23, 2014 9:04 pm
When free-jazz improvisers such as pianist Matthew Shipp are at the top of their game, watching them create order out of chaos is an exhilarating experience. Shipp has jazz history and more besides at his fingertips, and regularly conjures music of substance and value without recourse to set-piece clichés or the aid of pre-set harmonies or rhythm.
At this gig, the second of a three-day residency, the American was joined by two British musicians, saxophonist Paul Dunmall and drummer Mark Sanders, who last played with Shipp in 2011. The trio grabbed the full house from the first swish of brushes to the final fading chord, and delivered such a strong sense of form that the music, particularly in the first set, might well have been pre-composed.
They began as one, sax and piano intertwining their harmonically oblique, emotionally ambiguous arpeggios over a confident brush of rhythm. Shipp rumbled and trilled, saxophonist Dunmall fired off fast, gritty scales and chromatics while Sanders created a surging backdrop of short rolls, cymbal splashes and stuttering bass-drum thuds. The intensity increased, Shipp’s full-piano discords thumped out a regular pulse, and then all subsided to sparse, oblique and rhythmic solo piano.
These ebb-and-flow dynamics were repeated several times in the first set, gradually increasing in intensity. Each mood was sustained to just the right level, and each climax, breakdown and period of calm had different content and shape. Shipp hinted at boogie and New Orleans march, balladesque melodies and modern jazz swing while Dunmall varied texture and tone, spiralled into the upper register and occasionally screeched. At one point, his soft and rhythmic low-note lines conjured creatures padding on a twilight prowl.
The second set was darker-hued, more abstract and had less of a sense of overarching form – some of the quieter moments seemed more like pausing for breath than aesthetic plan. But the climaxes were equally intense and, with Sanders sensitive and powerful on the drums, the music always engaged. Highlights included an unaccompanied Shipp transforming a low sax phonic into a sequence of great beauty and Dunmall’s descending full-force warbles fading into a gentle low-note phonic, cushioned by Shipp’s wistful, end-of-set pastorale.
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