Ear Candy: On Matthew Shipp and Michael Bisio’s Live in Seattle

The 1947 remembering-a-lover-lost song “Green Dolphin Street” by composer Bronislaw Kaper and lyricist Ned Washington is one of those standards that jazz musicians have interpreted and reinterpreted for more than half a century. The plush, almost decadent melody becomes a springboard for performer’s personalities, whether it be Ahmad Jamal’s unflappable cool, Miles Davis’ confident vulnerability, or Wynton Kelly’s bluesy elation. When pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist Michael Bisio tackle the standard on their new album Live in Seattle, what you hear are two eloquent and versatile veterans balance intelligence and warmth without ever slipping into the nostalgia and traditionalism that a can be a standard’s musical quicksand. Their sympathetic and sparring duet makes “Green Dolphin Street” sound emotionally romantic and forlorn now, not evocative of some imagined, idealized past.

The entire album feels as spry and fresh. Bisio and Shipp have, I think, played and recorded together for nearing a decade now, and their ongoing collaboration continues to produce a wealth of music that is as expressively moving as it is intellectually astute. Unlike last year’s The Conduct of Jazz, a stunning statement that felt like it was engaging with and commenting upon the jazz trio format, Live in Seattle sounds like two musicians with their hearts and minds set to thrill. It’s an album that sees avant-leaning vocabulary and musical pleasure as inescapably enmeshed, where Bisio’s seemingly atonal high-pitched bowed bass lines become the apt accompaniment to Shipp’s achingly melancholic reading of the melody to Rogers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.”

Quite simply, it’s a musically complex album that mines an emotional landscape of the everyday. Consider Bisio and Shipp’s engaging take on Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s 1972 hit “Where is the Love”. Shipp handles the song’s melody and meter while Bisio paints abstract rhythmic textures behind him. Together they take the song into rhythmically meditative spaces until it’s a whorl of piano chords and bass throb before easing back into the song’s hummable melody.

More fun are what they do with Shipp’s originals, such as the rhythmically knotty “Psychic Counterpart” from 2012’s Elastic Aspects and “New Fact,” a song that is, I think, a robust update of “The New Fact” from the 1998 quartet album, The Multiplication Table. Live in Seattle‘s “New Fact” is a powerful, gorgeous dance where the bass and piano seemingly drift apart into their own paths and circle around to share an orbit again and again.

To get a sense of the nimble relationship Bisio and Shipp share, just consider what he brings to a single Shipp composition. On the 2006 solo piano album One, Shipp’s “Gamma Ray” is a meditative exploration in which he moves from melodic lines to dense improvisations, from elegant passages to dizzying sequences. When “Gamma Ray” appeared on Shipp’s 2011 live trio album Art of the Improviser with Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey, Shipp tackled the song solo; the tempo feels slightly accelerated, its dynamic shifts more angular, and as a result its melody feels more physically dense. On Live in Seattle Bisio and Shipp stretch “Gamma Rays” out to nine and half minutes, with Bisio putting a ghost of a pulse behind Shipp’s lines. When Shipp comes to the composition’s rush of pointillistic piano notes around the seven-minute mark, Bisio marks a thwumping time behind him until they’re both sounding dense, percussive sheets of sound from their instruments, a soulfully ineffable eruption of beauty.

Painting and cooking metaphors come all too easily to mind for moments like this, those situations where a mix of sophisticated skill and expressive know-how ignite a complex and esthetically visceral response. Live in Seattle is just that, a delicious, sumptuous feast for the ears and the wrinkled brain between them.

Matthew Shipp and Michael Bisio play An die Musik April 12 at 8 p.m.

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