“The mysterious element is that no matter how much control you try to exert as a composer, you do give over to natural forces, which are out of your control.”Sun Ra? Sun Ra represents a very outward way of trying to forge mysticism with jazz language. I say outward because, say, with Coltrane, spirituality undergirded his music, and he talked about it a lot, but he didn’t claim to be an Egyptian sun god! Sun Ra represents the idea of everything being information and language. He deals with a continuum from Fletcher Henderson to John Cage, as if he’s coming from the same place with all of it. Each component is another part of the hologram. You can turn the gem over and see a different side of it. Sun Ra understood that this music has a deep American/Afro-American history. He understood that some of it might have been transmitted from forces outside the human realm, however you want to describe them — angels, aliens, vibrational photons somewhere in the cosmos. Even though Sun Ra is very Afrocentric, and his main thing is painting pictures of infinity with the orchestra, he’s also a gifted pianist — at times you hear hints of Liszt and certain Romantic composers in his playing. He poses a lot of questions. Whether he answers them all the time … that’s not maybe the point. The point is to pose the questions and get your mind rolling. You were raised in the Episcopal church and had early experience as a church organist. How did that impact your aesthetics? When I was 10-11-12, I was the assistant organist when the church’s regular organist couldn’t make it. The ritualistic Episcopalian liturgy had a big influence on me as a kid. I was also an altar boy, and I could recite the Mass by memory by the time I was 6 or 7. As a kid, I basically memorized a big portion of the Protestant hymn book, which taught me a lot about four-part harmony. Just the actual resonance of Protestant hymns in general was big. I hear tons of hymns in my playing, the harmonic movement, though it might not be obvious to other people. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tiS-mU1yUU Without getting into psychoanalytic reasons, the head space from those formative things is massive. I could say it’s an alchemy mindset. In the Episcopalian church and the Catholic church, you believe that a wafer and cheap wine actually alchemize into the real body and blood of Christ, actually transubstantiate to a godhead. The conversion of mundane factors to a sacred whole is a big influence on the way I think, and it comes out of that church thing. It’s completely different than Gospel, which I learned about when I went to my grandmother’s Baptist church as a teenager to get a taste of the music, which I was trying to learn as much about as I could. I ended up becoming the pianist in the youth choir at her church. I also played in a bunch of funk bands as a teenager. Does your presentation contain an element of that kind of pageantry? It can. My whole vibe is to close my eyes and just let the music take me wherever. But I’m a professional and I’ve been doing this my whole life, so I’m assuming I play into other aspects of it sometimes. Drummerless trios, like the String Trio with William Parker and Mat Maneri, have been important for you. Another recent context is a trio album with Daniel Carter and William Parker. Those are two very interesting projects to juxtapose. They come from completely different places, even though William is on both. First, the String Trio. The product of that group is actually very jazz and very who-we-are. But I have an intense classical background, and I delight in playing with timbres of strings and pretending that I’m a classical composer, orchestrating the piano parts in ways that might evoke a feeling of chamber music — which I love. I breathe and phrase differently. I’m free to go in a lot of directions I couldn’t possibly go in with a drummer. [caption id="attachment_38783" align="alignleft" width="2500"] William Parker, Mat Maneri, Matthew Shipp (Photo: Courtesy Rogue Art)[/caption] My current album with Daniel and William is a continuation of the Downtown school of music that Daniel and William have been part of since the early ’70s, that I moved to New York in 1984 to be a part of. It’s completely unpretentious New York free jazz. Add a piano to it and put it in a concert hall, it can also take on a chamber music vibe, which is cool. That’s just how elastic the language is. It’s a certain way of dealing with the pulse, what you might call the breaking of the circle, if you look at it from a Renaissance point of view. When Cecil Taylor hired William and [drummer] Rashid Bakr around 1980, they’d already been doing this type of thing, already established a way of playing and a sound that was indicative of the East Village. I’d like to address your open-ended improvising in the duo space. I’ll take four sax players I play duo with at this time: Rob Brown, Ivo Perelman, Evan Parker and Daniel Carter. That’s their life. These guys are not dilettantes. They’re not trying to do something different. They dedicate every waking moment to that particular art form — being able to go on a stage or into a studio and do that. Every time they listen to music, their subconscious mind is generating ways to get nourishment to do their own thing. When it’s a discipline to that level, it’s not really free improvisation at that point. Do you feel fully comfortable in the fully improvised space, as much as the more rigorous space that you occupy in trio or solo contexts? Well, I’m a free jazz musician. That’s how I’ve been defined. That’s how people see me. That’s the tradition I come out of. I don’t really think of what you do as free jazz. In those contexts, I perceive you using your language to spontaneously create shapes, sounds, colors to suit the moment. I like the fact that you don’t think of me as a free jazz pianist. That makes me feel good. I’m my own idiom. Anyway, I don’t think the term “free jazz” really has any meaning. Ornette Coleman named an album, and a certain trajectory happened. People throw it on anything that doesn’t have chord changes in 4/4. It’s an easy term to use, but what does it actually mean? I don’t know. First of all, you’re not free. Nobody is free. Everybody is constricted by whatever constraints their instrument has. There’s physical limitations. And if you think you’re playing something that’s never been played or new, I guarantee that your nervous system is imposing a pattern on what you’re playing, and if you think you’re free, you’re probably playing the same stuff over and over. [caption id="attachment_38784" align="alignleft" width="2560"] Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons[/caption] At the end of the day, it’s not about being free. It’s about taste and talent. If your imperative is to start from scratch, you develop a methodology to be able to do that. Somebody who plays really well with chord changes spends a lot of time learning how to play with chord changes. I don’t think anybody knows where freedom starts or it ends, or where a form constrains you. Whether you think you’re free or going by a form, whatever it is, it’s a matter of praxis, discipline and openness all meeting somehow — and stuff just happens. Magic is not caught up in any of those things. It’s all mysterious.