Critic’s Pick 277: John Medeski, ‘A Different Time’ and Matthew Shipp, ‘Greatest Hits’

john medeskiFew musical situations elicit greater or more immediate excitement than the junctions where composition and improvisation meet. And perhaps no instrument better showcases that balance than the piano.

On two new recordings, John Medeski and Matthew Shipp – composers and improvisers who have represented themselves as prime artistic journeymen over the past two decades – explore various temperaments and even musical histories to further their piano voices.

Medeski is the keyboardist component of the avant-jam trio Medeski Martin & Wood, where his primary instruments are organ and clavinet and his favored stylistic device is the groove (along with various deconstructed variants). But on his debut solo album, A Different Time, Medeski retreats strictly to piano. And not just any piano, mind you, but a 1924 French-made Gaveau – an instrument whose pre-modern construction shapes much of the record’s mood.

Those accustomed to MMW’s frenzied jams – even the rare acoustic ones that featured piano – are likely to find the relaxed and often impressionistic tone of A Different Place a refreshing, if not somewhat unanticipated, departure. The delicacy of the Gaveau’s sound plays a part. But the largely contemplative intent of the album’s improvised title tune, the curiously wintry fancy that invests Willie Nelson’s I’m Falling in Love Again with studied grace and the huskier but pastoral sweep of the traditional spiritual His Eye is on the Sparrow place Medeski’s playing in a new and immensely complimentary light.

In contrast to the records of MMW, A Different Time comes across as an after-hours meditation. Even the album closing Otis, first presented on the 1992 MMW debut  Notes from the Underground, possesses newfound patience and warmth, and a beautifully intimate piano accent that the Gaveau brings to the entire album.

matthew shippMatthew Shipp has long been at the forefront of a new generation of improvisers. Solo piano also is the setting that best expresses his musicianship, but Shipp’s new Greatest Hits album is an anthology that celebrates 12 years worth of varied, compelling formats.

There is the militaristic rumble that ignites a quartet summit with the great New York trumpeter Roy Campbell (Gesture), the syncopated groove that positions programmed synths and William Parker’s ultra funky acoustic bass under Shipp’s piano lead (Cohesion) and the ruptured lyricism of his trio with bassist Michael Bissio and drummer Whit Dickey (the title tune to 2012’s Elastic Aspects). But the neo-classical construction of Module, from the essential 2005 solo piano record One, brings the magic of Shipp’s playing into fully sharpened prominence.

There is in an admittedly tongue-in-cheek aspect to calling such a decidedly non-commercial sampler Greatest Hits. Still, in summarizing the many musical profiles of one of today’s foremost improviser/composers, the anthology undeniably hits big.



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