Exclusive Interview: Jazz Musicians Matthew Shipp And Mat Walerian
In jazz as in life, you’re sometimes only as good as the people you work with. John Coltrane, for instance, made some amazing music in his career, but did some of his best work with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones, as best heard on such classic albums as Ballads, Crescent, Afro Blue Impressions, First Meditations, Sun Ship, and, of course, A Love Supreme.
Someday, people may say the same thing about pianist Matthew Shipp and bass clarinetist, alto saxophonist, soprano clarinetist, and flautist Mat Walerian. While both have played numerous shows with other people, and Shipp has recorded over a hundred albums with various musicians, including nearly seventy as a leader, the two really clicked when they started playing together, as evidenced by the two excellent albums they’ve released so far. The first, Live At Okuden (my review of which you can read here), presents a show they played as the duo The Uppercut at the Okuden Music Concert Series in Torun, Poland in 2012, while the second, also called Live At Okuden (which I also reviewed; click here), is a trio show they played with drummer Hamid Drake during the same music series a few months later.
And that’s not the end of their partnership. This September will see the release of This Is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People, which Walerian, Shipp, and bassist William Parker recorded under the name Toxic, while Walerian will join Shipp, bassist Michael Bisio, and drummer Walt Dickey in the Matthew Shipp Quartet for the album Sonic Fiction, which is due out in the spring of 2017.
To learn how these two got together, why they think their partnership has been so artistically rewarding, and where they think it might be going, I interviewed Shipp and Walerian via email during two sessions: the first, in 2015, happened just after the release of the first Live At Okuden; the second, after the second one came out.
I always like to start at the beginning. How did you guys first meet, and how aware of each other’s work were you when you did?
Matthew Shipp: Mat contacted me either through email or Facebook. I had never heard of him, but my agent at the time lived in Poland, and I think Mat had talked to my agent also, and my agent got a good feeling from him. I did not really feel like making a new friend, but he seemed really honest, and drummer Hamid Drake had played with him and put in a really good word, so I decided to do a project with him.
Mat Walerian: I was organizing next edition of the Okuden Concert Series, and had sent Shipp an email, and he answered saying I should contact his agent in that matter. Matthew had obviously never heard about me, but I knew his work well. I knew all his albums, plus, of course, the complete Ware Quartet discography. When I started listening to jazz in the ’90s — I was born in ’84 — Matthew was already very active.
What made you guys think a collaboration between you two would work?
Matthew Shipp: I went on what Hamid Drake told me. I really trusted Hamid’s recommendation.
Mat Walerian: For me, there was nothing to think about. I had some played duets with drums, and some chamber-like trio stuff with orchestral harp and cello, but had never actually worked with piano before. Piano is my favorite instrument, and in the matter or jazz ensembles, I prefer piano trios. I wanted to play with piano, and so I tried talking to my favorite pianist.
And what made you think a collaboration that was just the two of you would work?
Matthew Shipp: Duos are my favorite mode of communication, and the first time I meet Mat we hit it off right away, so I just assumed a duo would work.
Actually, the first concert I did with him was a quartet, but my favorite section of that concert was a small part where we did play as a duo.
Mat Walerian: And it was short, about two minutes, but being a heavy cat, he probably noticed it can work.
photo credit: Michal Stankowski
As I understand it, you guys originally called yourself M-theory, but changed it to The Uppercut | Matthew Ship Mat Walerian Duo. First, why the switch, and why did you think The Uppercut | Matthew Ship Mat Walerian Duo would be a better name? And while we’re on the subject, why not just call it The Matthew Ship/Mat Walerian Duo? Or just The Uppercut?
Matthew Shipp: I am not involved with naming any of this. I leave it up to Mat. I am involved with a massive amount of things and can get overwhelmed.
Mat Walerian: The duo was originally called Matthew Shipp Mat Walerian M-theory Project because we have some common interests, including quantum physics. M-theory is a theory in physics that unifies all consistent versions of superstring theory, so we called the duo M-theory Project as an idea of total unification. Plus we are both named Matthew.
We changed the name in December of 2013, a year and a half after we recorded Live At Okuden, when we were touring the Ukraine. There was almost a war already, and the whole vibe was serious and vicious — and the general impression was we are going in a more vicious direction with the duo — so we changed the name to The Uppercut. We’re also both huge boxing fans, and watch a lot of boxing on the road. The unofficial name for the duo is just Mike Tyson.
So when it came to making your first album, why did you decide it would be a live one?
Matthew Shipp: It was a special night. Certain nights the gods seem to be on your side. But the decision [to record and release this show] was not made beforehand. The concert came out really well, and we decided after the fact that it would make a nice CD.
Mat Walerian: I record every single performance I do — every single project, every single concert etc. — because you never know.
Is that why your second album, Live At Okuden with Hamid Drake, is also a live one?
Mat Walerian: The second album was released because it was a different project and I wanted it to be documented.
When I listened to the first album, I was reminded of Jimmy Giuffre’s playing with the Jimmy Giuffre 3, on the albums 1961 and Free Fall, Claudio Puntin’s work on the Wolfert Brederode Quartet albums Currents and Post Scriptum, and in the playing of John Surman, Barbaros Erkose, and Klaus Gesing on Anouar Brahem’s albums Thimar, Astrakan Cafe, and The Astounding Eyes Of Rita, respectfully. Though, obviously, there are some significant differences. Do you consider any of these musicians or albums to be an influence on Okuden?
Mat Walerian: I actually don’t know any of albums. I know Paul Bley and Jimmy Giuffre, but I never had a Jimmy Giuffre 3 album.
Matthew Shipp: I don’t know what influenced that particular project, but the Jimmy Giuffre 3 is a tremendous influence on me. I think that group actualized everything third stream music was after, it is the ultimate chamber sound, and Paul Bley was an ultimate improvising artist who is not imprisoned by any genre. So in a situation like this — where we are in a great concert hall with a great piano, Mat’s playing clarinet, there’s no drums, and I am going for that chamber jazz flavor — I can see how the Jimmy Giuffre 3 would raise its head.
The second Live At Okuden is different, stylistically, from the first. Was that by virtue of adding Hamid Drake on drums, or was that something you set out to do?
Mat Walerian: It was different because trios have completely different vibes and dynamics than duos. Instead of 50/50, you have three people doing the job, so there is less space for you to play, you have time for rest, etc. Playing a duo is more like you go or you die.
I did three different trios with Hamid before, but this one was special because and Matthew works with completely different drummers, and Hamid doesn’t work with pianos often, even considering the amount of projects he is involved. So it was kind of very exotic perspective to say the least. And I love exotics. Putting Jungle together was, on one hand, a natural continuation, and on the other hand, a fascinating experiment. It’s less on the edge than the duo, but it’s also completely different from anything Matthew or Hamid did before.
You two have plans to release a studio album with bassist William Parker called This Is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People in September, and Mat, you’re playing with the Matthew Shipp Quartet on their album Sonic Fiction, which is due out next year.
Mat Walerian: If he can stand my sick personality then we’ll play together until we die.
Cool. So how do you decide what you’re going to do together?
Matthew Shipp: I have a million projects of my own, so whatever I do with Mat I will let him generate the concept.
Mat Walerian: I have around ten different projects in my head right now, various settings with Matthew, but I don’t want to say what they are yet as these are some special ideas. Though we do want to another duo recording.
Do any of those plans included more albums called Live At Okuden?
Mat Walerian: I did not have any plans to record more live albums, though, as I said, I record every concert I play because you never know. But while I’m happy these recordings were released, I’m in a completely different place right now. The Uppercut was in a drawer for almost three years, Jungle for four years. When I listen to these albums, my playing seems juvenile to me. It was the end of a period, and I think it’s good it is captured on an album.
photo credit: Michal Stankowski
Lastly, if time travel was possible, and you could play with any musician during any period of their career, who would you guys most want to work with and when? And I mean work with together, I don’t mean individually.
Matthew Shipp: No one. I really believe we are put here at the right time to do exactly what we are doing, so I am pleased to be doing what I am doing now.
Mat Walerian: A trio with Jimi Hendrix. The concert or recording would consist also several rap parts with Ol’ Dirty Bastard of The Wu-Tang Clan on the mic, and on the double CD album, the second disk would be a remix done by Aphex Twin.