New Release Review: The Uppercut: Matthew Shipp Mat Walerian Duo – “Live at Okuden” (ESP-Disk’)

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Forming a duo in jazz can amount to a daunting task. There’s simply no hiding; with arrangements so sparse, possibility is boundless and subtleties are fully exposed. This formless atmosphere requires able musicians who can immerse themselves in their instruments and in turn, feed off each other to eventually flourish on a singular wavelength. The innovators of the jazz duo — Anthony Braxton and Max Roach, Bill Evans and Jim Hall, Dave Holland and Sam Rivers — reaped these artistic benefits and effectively solidified the format’s legacy within jazz, passing the gifts of unrefined improvisation on to new generations.

“Where are the new duos of this generation?” you may ask. Well, I’m happy to report that a new musical team has emerged that deserves to be added to the aforementioned list of greats: the Matthew Shipp Mat Walerian Duo. For a learned jazz fan, one of these names should be familiar, the other…not so much. Matthew Shipp, the 55-year-old pianist/composer, is one of the leading, if not the leading musician of his time. He has mastered his instrument and continues to extract beauty every time he sits at a piano bench. His musical partner during this set, Mat Walerian, is a 31-year-old Polish multi-instrumentalist whose expressive attack on the alto sax, bass clarinet, soprano clarinet, and flute will surely make you ask yourself, “How have I never heard of this guy?” Both are masters of the avant-garde and both are adept at creating a flowing dialogue between their instruments. But don’t take my word for it; just listen to the music and you’ll understand.

While listening, you’ll realize that trying to pin down one genre upon this whole set would be a monumental misstep; elements of the blues, free jazz, bop, gospel, and chamber music are all found within. Due to these broad influences, I’ve decided to simply call this “music” — music occupying the highest level of sophistication and mastery, at that. Throughout, Shipp proves himself as a genial leader as well as supporter, whether it be responding to Walerian through swift, angular runs or fabricating a backbone with Tyner-esque chord sequences. Walerian takes a softer approach to his contribution, always listening intently to Shipp’s output and opting for intuition and creativity over technicality. His playing is eloquent and imaginative, taking the spotlight in the form of mellow, meandering bursts of sound that resemble the work of a tranquilized Eric Dolphy.

“Live at Okuden” is a prime example of what can come of two kindred spirits producing music under the freewheeling ideals of jazz. Sometimes the music is tense and atonal, at other times, it’s gentle and ravishing. But perhaps most importantly, it’s always unrestrained. Shipp and Walerian both harbor a matured sense of space, coordination, and texture that results in an overall enthralling listen. This is modern jazz at its most potent and uncompromising.

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