A solo piano album is a perilous proposition; this includes justly acclaimed Matt Shipp, here at his eighth solitary release. A soliloquy can unveil hidden details of a performer’s nature that sometimes are better left concealed; a skilled instrumentalist can prefer that setting to hide a shortage of genuinely groundbreaking intuitions under complex chordal shapes bathed in glorious reverberance, perhaps losing small pieces of humility and soulfulness in the process. Not that the average listener realizes that, of course; smoothing angles while pretending commitment works wonders with unwary audiences. I have directly witnessed people derisively howling at Cecil Taylor, and getting ecstatic with the most atrocious jazz rubbish. That’s how it goes with human development.
Shipp is both technically blessed and appreciably opinionated (look for his unfavorable remarks in regard to confrere Keith Jarrett’s lack of an authentically personal style). These characteristics should have warranted a thankful elation as unshared feeling — as it happens when meeting a milepost — once the “play” button was pressed. Instead, I’m currently at the fourth attempt with this brilliantly rendered program (eleven improvisations plus individual versions of “Giant Steps” and “Nefertiti”) and there’s still something missing: a crucial emotional response, ineluctably experienced by this writer with the aforementioned Taylor, or Keith Tippett, or Irène Schweizer. Or — get this — Joachim Kühn. Not to mention that obscure behemoth named John Blum. Shipp is certainly a man who knows where to direct himself during an improvisation: an original talent proportional to the expertise, a piece like “Silent Cube” is so accomplished that it sounds entirely composed. In those moments — or in gorgeous chapters such as “Space Bubble” and “Cosmic Dust” — one has the sensation of standing in front of a true master.
However, I find my heart slightly detached from the large part of this otherwise excellent outing. It feels as though Shipp was willing to create a distance between his public status and a thorough physical and spiritual involvement. We acquire the acoustic splendor, savor the beautiful harmonies, but can’t see the droplets of sweat running down the forehead. Naturally, this has to do with private perception; even so, there’s more gratification in watching someone putting in all he/she has than perceiving only 70% or so of a vast possibility, as brightly as that percentage may shine. Halfway through intellect and earnestness, Piano Sutras is in any case a must-hear.