Exclusive Interview: Sonic Fiction Pianist Matthew Shipp & Saxophonist/Clarinetist Mat Walerian
Having recorded as a duo (2015’s Live At Okuden), a trio with drummer Hamid Drake (2016’s Live At Okuden), and a trio with bassist William Parker (2017’s This Is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People), you’d expect the jazz twosome of pianist Matthew Shipp and clarinetist, saxophonist Mat Walerian to next record a quartet collection, perhaps with Drake and Parker. But while their new album Sonic Fiction (CD, digital), was recorded by four people, it’s not the four you might expect. Credited to the Matthew Shipp Quartet Featuring Mat Walerian, Sonic Fiction features Michael Bisio on double bass and drummer Whit Dickey. In talking to Shipp and Walerian, they discuss why this album is so unexpected, and what else they’re planning, as well as Shipp’s new solo piano collection Zero (CD, digital) and his three-disc boxed set with tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman, Oneness (CD).
To start, when in the chronology of your working together did you guys record this album?
Shipp: I don’t really remember what sequence these albums where recorded, or even when. I have been involved with so much that it all seems like a continuum to me.
Walerian: The first Live At Okuden was recorded in May 2012, the second in November 2012, while both This Is Beautiful… and Sonic Fiction were recorded three years later, in December 2015.
Sonic Fiction features drummer Whit Dickey, who used to be in the Matthew Shipp Trio, as opposed to current Trio drummer Newman Taylor Baker. Does that mean that Sonic Fiction was recorded back when Whit was still in the trio?
Shipp: I actually still do projects with Whit even though he’s not in my trio anymore. Whit and Mat have a relationship because we did a concert in Poland with this group, and Whit and Mat have spent some time together. Mat has also followed my work from the beginning, including my early albums from the 1990s with Whit. I feel there is really something between them that needs to be explored. The trio with Newman is a very special thing — it projects a jazz vibe, as if it almost is a straight jazz trio, though it obviously is not — so I keep that trio as one entity. But when I branch out to quartets and other things I use Whit as opposed to Newman.
This Is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People was your first studio album together after two live albums. How did working on that collection impact or influence what you did on Sonic Fiction?
Shipp: On the CDs I did with Mat, he was the leader. The only way they influenced Sonic Fiction, on which I’m the leader, is that they gave me an idea of what he could do. I knew what his vocabulary was, and I knew that I wanted to push him to go places he does not in his own work. My CDs are my own distinct world, so when I invite him in, it is to the rules of my universe. But I do think in terms of what does this particular sideman have to offer.
Walerian: When I’m invited to a session, I shut the fuck up and do what I’m asked to do. Like a tool.
So then Sonic Fiction would’ve been different if Mat had been the leader on it.
Shipp: On the CDs when I’ve played with Mat, I’ve gone out of my way to assume a different character then I do on my own CDs, and to really try to embrace his vision. Especially on the duo CD [the first Live At Okuden], which has a very special place in my heart. I am trying to realize his world on those CDs, and he has a very distinct vision. But on Sonic Fiction, it is the Shipp universe.
But has there been any talk of recording a Mat-led quartet, maybe with Hamid and William?
Walerian: We are recording this summer: Matthew, William, Hamid, and I. The temporary, working title for the album is Every Dog Has It’s Day But It Does Not Matter Because Fat Cat Is Getting Fatter.
Cool. So, are there any plans for you guys to go on tour anytime soon, either with this quartet or some other configuration?
Shipp: There are no tour plans for the quartet from Sonic Fiction. Whit has not really been able to travel much. But maybe in the future that might change.
Walerian: Business as usual: we are going to space; space is the place.
Now, aside from Sonic Fiction, Matthew you also recently released a solo piano album called Zero, which was recorded last year. How, if at all, do you think the music on Zero has been influenced by what you’ve done with Mat?
Shipp: Zero is not influenced by anything I’ve done with Mat. It is my own music, and of all things solo piano is really a self-contained world. It is a continuation of all the things that have driven my music since I’ve began. It will be interesting to see how it fits in with the piano legacy of ESP Records.
As if Zero and Sonic Fiction weren’t enough, Matthew, you also have third album that just came out, Oneness, a three-disc boxed set you recorded with tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman.
Shipp: The world I get with Ivo Perelman is its own unique world based on the the interaction between Ivo and myself. I’ve been doing stuff with him for twenty years now, and we have a very refined interaction that has evolved over a long time. Oneness was supposed to be a situation where we went in the studio one week and picked one or two cuts a day to be on an album. But we liked so much of the material that we decided to make it three CDs.
Matthew, when you sit down to write a song, do you do so with specific musicians in mind, or specific instruments, or do you just write and figure out later who should play on it or what the instruments should be?
Shipp: I write for myself. Very few times have I written for a certain musician. But I write all the time, and have a backlog of material that, at a later time, shape for certain players when I decide to use them on certain projects. I write all the time, so I have loads of material, but I am a piano-centric composer
Now Mat, aside from the stuff you’ve done with Matthew, you also play in the Val Jeanty Trio with drummer and turntablist Val Jeanty and pianist and synthesizer player Craig Taborn. Are there any plans for you guys to record or release anything soon?
Walerian: The Val Jeanty trio is a new concept; she got the idea in 2016. We played as a duo before, Liquid Demon, in 2015, while Val and Craig have worked together for years. Val and I want to record as Liquid Demon, but as a trio with Japanese zither, and we want to record the trio this summer. Though it will be more electronica, with Craig using both piano and synthesizers, and me operating thru a range of electronic peripherals. Last year I became an endorser for Eventide Audio and was provided with a ton of NASA class units.
Finally, as we’ve discussed, you two have now made a duo album, a trio album with a bassist, a trio album with a drummer, and now a quartet album with a drummer and a bassist. So what next for you two?
Shipp: What is next? To get out of bed tomorrow.
Walerian: We are talking about recording several different projects: another duo album; a contemporary quintet; my quartet [Walerian, Shipp, Parker, Drake]; an album with Matthew, William, and Val; a contemporary quartet, i.e. without rhythm section; a brand-new trio without bass or drums…. I have around ten albums prepared in my notebook. Time will tell. I’m also, in May, performing with Matthew at the Vision Festival in New York with Michael Bisio, Newman Taylor Baker, and [violinist, viola player] Mat Maneri.
Bottom line: I keep studying and doing what I’m doing and just try to live the rest of this fantastic life in a decent manner. It’s been an amazing journey so far.