Talkhouse: Lou Hypes Kanye, Shipp Disses Jarrett & More

Pianist Matthew Shipp (right) comments on pianist Keith Jarrett (left) at the innovative website Talkhouse.

The talk about The Talkhouse—a brilliant website where accomplished musicians write about other accomplished musicians—has mostly centered on Lou Reed’s celebration of Kanye West’s “Yeezus.”

Reed’s piece is noteworthy, and not least for its balance (“There are moments of supreme beauty and greatness on this record, and then some of it is the same old shit”), as well as its self-reflective insights, such as this one:

When I did Metal Machine Music, New York Times critic John Rockwell said, “This is really challenging.” I never thought of it like that. I thought of it like, “Wow, if you like guitars, this is pure guitar, from beginning to end, in all its variations. And you’re not stuck to one beat.” That’s what I thought…. You make stuff because it’s what you do and you love it.

Yet there’s much more similarly fascinating stuff worth reading at the site. Vijay Iyer’s take on the Flying Lotus CD “Until The Quiet Comes” offers erudite analysis as well as the sense of wonder best beamed by one artist toward another—in this case, at the man behind the Lotus, Steve Ellison. Iyer writes:

Imagining these sounds were assembled by a singular, otherworldly force is easier than guessing what Ellison the man is thinking and why. What are his chosen dimensions of expression? What makes a given track the disheveled, gleaming breakthrough that it is? How does it come to be, out of all that he knows and has discovered? What are the decider’s decisions? I honestly don’t have a clue. Something about Ellison’s process is unknowable, and his music often just seems so wholly other, even when you can identify its ingredients.

For sheer honesty and provocation, nothing tops pianist Matthew Shipp’s jabs at pianist Keith Jarrett, in a review of “Somewhere,” the latest from Jarrett’s celebrated Standards Trio (with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette). Shipp likes to tear things down, especially jazz icons, including Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter (I’ve argued with him about Shorter and, in fact, I think Shorter’s current quartet has more than a thing or two in common with Shipp’s trio, in terms of overall approach to musicmaking.) In his Talkhouse review of Jarrett, Shipp is up front about his own negative predisposition, based largely on “the position that Keith Jarrett’s music occupies in the hierarchy of the jazz industry,” and what Shipp, maybe rightly, perceives as the “layers and layers and layers of pretension” that shrouds Jarrett’s music. And Shipp willingly concedes the following: “Well, first of all, there is some nice music on the disc. That should be all that matters. I should be able to get past what I perceive as the Jarrett pretense and just enjoy what is here for what it is. I’m having a hard time with that.” Shipp’s problem with Jarrett may be that he simply prefers something else, thus explained: “I personally don’t really buy into his phrasing. What can I say? I worship the phrasing of Bud Powell-Monk-Hampton Hawes and Phineas Newborn, Jr.”

As I noted in a Wall Street Journal piece on Shipp, when away from the piano, he’s as combative as any boxer, forever taunting supposed foes. Such commentary is somewhat of an act, akin to the classic pre-boxing-bout press conference. But it also serves a serious point. As I wrote in that profile, “however inelegantly, it reflects the fighting spirit of a pianist who has stubbornly advanced his own artistic agenda against what he sees as the stacked odds of convention.” All of that might get tiresome if Shipp’s music weren’t so consistently good and reflective of that stance. (I’ve just begun listening to his “Piano Sutras,” due for release in September, a solo recording that reaffirms within its opening minute that here is a pianist who has defined, and refined, his own language.)

Pianist Ethan Iverson appreciated Shipp’s review. “Jarrett owns too much real estate and is too abrasive a personality not to be taken down a peg once in a while,” he wrote at his Do The Math blog. “I’m glad Shipp is out there, pulling no punches.”

Yet Iverson, who counts Jarrett among his formative influences, took issue with some of Shipp’s points, especially his assertion that Jarrett never “sculpted a specific language system.” To that, Iverson countered: “Keith has a language. You can put on any Keith record anywhere (where he is improvising) and instantly know it is Keith. Sure, that language isn’t as uncompromising as Cecil Taylor’s! But surely it is only Keith’s.” And I share Iverson’s sentiment when he writes, “What I want to hear from Keith are the outer-space atonal rhapsodies. (There’s an astonishing one on “Somewhere” right at the beginning of the disc.)”

Iverson, who is best known as a member of the innovative trio Bad Plus has also made a practice of performing and recording with elder jazz statesmen in well-rounded ensembles. I’m just about to dig into two new ones, coming out in the next few weeks:
Ethan Iverson/Lee Konitz/Larry Grenadier/Jorge Rossy. “Costumes Are Mandatory” (High Note); and Albert “Tootie” Heath/Ethan Iverson/Ben Street, “Tootie’s Tempo” (Sunnyside).

The depth, range and wisdom reflected in Iverson’s playing is equally evident in his writing, mostly through his copious posts at Do The Math (which, to me, is the most consistently interesting and insightful music blog) or in his takedown, at the Talkhouse site, of Joss Whedon’s score for “Much Ado About Nothing.”

There’s nothing new about musicians discussing each other’s music. But The Talkhouse might just elevate such conversations, or at least bring them within public earshot.

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