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Q&A: MATTHEW SHIPP

An online exclusive interview

Photograph by Ian Allen

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Sunday, April 24, 2005

By James Hughes

As we close out our coverage of Issue 20: The Boxing Issue, we offer a web-exclusive interview with New York-based jazz pianist, Matthew Shipp, about the influence of boxing on his life and work.

Shipp, 44, burst onto the New York jazz scene in 1984 after a pilgrimage from his home state of Delaware. He settled into the East Village, where he soon began playing out with bassist William Parker; they’ve since become two of the most prolific jazz innovators of the their generation. Shipp, like Parker, is a bandleader and session player in a series of groups, including the David S. Ware Quartet. He is also the curator of the Blue Series for the Thirsty Ear label. For more information, visit Matthew Shipp’s official web site.

Stop Smiling: At what age did you really begin to appreciate boxing? Did it in any way tie in with your initial interest in jazz?

Matthew Shipp: I got into boxing around age 5 or 6. There used to be a TV show called “Fights of the Century” that I watched with my uncle. My uncle also used to tell me stories about Joe Louis, Jersey Joe Wolcott, Ezzard Charles and Sugar Ray Robinson. My uncle didn’t generally like white fighters so I heard endless stories from him about how Rocky Marciano wasn’t shit and if Joe Louis would have fought him when he was in his prime, he would’ve whooped him.

SS: Is there one pro fighter in particular whose style helped you develop as a musician — a fighter who you could always pick up a move from and transform that move into a musical expression?

MS: I don’t think I could single out a fighter whose style influenced me as a musician, but I tend to structurally like fighters with classic styles, with a lot of depth in how they move and calculate the environment in front of them, who definitely are cognizant of everything going on and can control the flow of events with their virtuosity. A current fighter who has these attributes is Floyd Mayweather Jr., and a historical fighter with those attributes is Sugar Ray Robinson.

I also like fighters who develop a completely idiosyncratic style that works for them, even if some of the things they do are traditionally and technically wrong. In jazz, a talent like that is Thelonious Monk. In the somewhat recent boxing world, a talent like that is Roy Jones Jr. And you would also have to put Muhammad Ali in that category, even though he sometimes has the look of a classic fighter.

SS: A boxer uses improvisation to throw off his opponent and expose his weaknesses. But in jazz, musicians exchange cues and respond to one another in a way that brings out their strengths. Yet, the two seem to follow a similar thought process — men in collaboration, sensing one another's movements and creating a spontaneous performance. Is that what makes both so exciting to watch, that element of the unknown?

MS: Improvisation — the element of the unknown — is definitely what gives boxing and jazz its excitement. Also the fast pace that both can happen at, the dance-like quality of both, and the fact that language and signals are being developed into a script at sometimes breakneck tempos in a dance of gestures that can be violent or harsh, but can have an underlining grace and beauty.

SS: Do you have any thoughts on Mike Tyson's announcement earlier this month that he's returning to the ring for another pro fight?

MS: Tyson is now a circus act — he’ll always be dangerous for a round or two, but will peter out after two rounds. So any serious heavyweight who can survive the first two or three rounds should knock Tyson out.

SS: Could you talk about the film Combinations, that you helped create with filmmaker Patrick Gaucher? How did the film come about, and what led to the live performances in Minneapolis that accompanied the screenings?

MS: I’ve been wanting to do a project where I presented boxers as dancers. In the ’90s, I used to be a music director for a New York dance company and it always struck me that it would be exciting to do a performance with boxers presented as dancers. I shopped the project around for years and there was no interest. Then a museum curator I knew in Europe got hired by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and he recalled that I had told him about the proposal. When they had a series on boxing and art, they contacted me.

SS: And, boxing aside, what are you currently up to, and what's coming up for you in the future?

MS: I’m curating the Blue Series on Thirsty Ear records, and this summer, I’ll be recording my next CD. I’ve been in Europe touring a decent bit as of lately.

Shipp has also appeared in Issue 16: The End of the New York Hype, as both an interviewee and composer of the 7” that accompanied the issue, which is available for purchase on this site.

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