The title of Matthew Shipp's new album, Harmonic Disorder, is also a frequent descriptor of the pianist's crashing style — and it's a trap. The intensity and complexity of the music give the album only a veneer of chaos, the best example of which is the delirious "Mr. JM." The "JM" the song's name refers to is bassist Joe Morris, and that's the crack in the façade: Closer inspection reveals that Shipp is following Morris. His wild curlicues of notes form daring harmonies with the supple bass, and his apparently free rhythms constantly accent Morris' waltz time.
After recognizing that there is indeed an orderly structure at work, navigating Harmonic Disorder is easy. Like a novel by Joyce, the dense, challenging sections are offset by passages of such grace and beauty that they pull the ear through the tough spots. "Mr. JM" is bookended by a two-part piece called "Mel Chi;" Part 2 (which appears first) is a simple yet spellbinding repetition of two arpeggios, while Part 1 finds Shipp playing a stomp while drummer Whit Dickey ticks out a busy, rolling hip-hop beat. There's even some humor: On "There Will Never Be Another You" (one of two standards on the disc), the band does an ironic and dissonant zip through what's traditionally a romantic ballad.
It's these kinds of subversions that have long associated Shipp with pianistic revolutionaries Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor — an accurate, if somewhat narrow, comparison. Truthfully, Shipp's playing encompasses the history of jazz piano, a point which Harmonic Disorder perhaps makes clearer than any of his releases to date. Allusions to Monk and Taylor are manifest. However, the slow "Compost" is constructed on Duke Ellington's stride technique and ringing chords, and the title track is a slice of quiet and tenderness that could only be traced to Bill Evans. Thus, it's something of a flip through the jazz yearbook for connoisseurs. (Thirsty Ear)
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