Pianist Matthew Shipp's tours have brought him to Chicago all too infrequently, which helps explain the standing-room-only audience that turned out to hear him Saturday night at Constellation.
But that was only part of the reason that anticipation ran high for Shipp's performance. Equally important, he stands as a singular improviser whose music bounds freely across genre and style. Listen to the sonic collages he created in his album "Harmony & Abyss" (2004), the other worldly sound effects he conjured in the electro-acoustic "Nu Bop" (2002) and the intricate, gnarly soliloquies he produced in his solo piano album "One" (2006), and you get a sense of Shipp's enormous range of expression and idiom.
Playing the more intimate of Constellation's two performance studios, Shipp appeared with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey, the same trio that created such free-flowing music-making with him on last year's "Elastic Aspects." But only a live performance adequately conveys the subtleties of tone, gesture and interaction that these three musicians can achieve.
Shipp's pianism of course stood at the center of the ensemble sound, the man somehow triggering an avalanche of ideas while maintaining an extraordinarily beautiful, rounded tone. Moreover, though Shipp unleashed a profusion of themes, one piling atop another, there was no mistaking the precision of his touch or transparency of his textures. Pianism as ornate, multi-layered and fast-moving as this rarely conveys such lucidity of sound and clarity of thought.
A vast sum of piano history coursed through Shipp's work, from the oceanic improvisations of Cecil Taylor to the fleet right-hand lines of classic bebop pianism to the enormous chord clusters of the American iconoclast Charles Ives. From amid this swirl of sound, however, Shipp consistently took pains to telegraph particular motifs or shards of melody, helping listeners to follow the progress of his ideas.
Thus early in his first set, Shipp's knotty chords and churning, galvanic statements gave rise to snippets of "What is This Thing Called Love." As Shipp's hands coursed the full range of the piano, creating vast waves of sound, Cole Porter's famous melody tantalizingly bubbled up here and there.
Elsewhere in this set, however, Shipp played sprawling abstract improvisations, switching from mercurial running figures to monumental block chords to simply stated single-note lines at the drop of a sixteenth note (or less). Even if Shipp had been alone onstage, this would have been one of the more gripping performances he has given Chicago, on a par with his solo set he played at the much-missed HotHouse in 2006.
But Shipp was not alone, Bisio and Dickey enriching an uninterrupted, 50-minute set in which one extended piece merged into the next. Like Shipp, bassist Bisio projected a larger-than-life sound that nonetheless conveyed a dark tonal beauty. His bowed solos, particularly one that quoted "My One and Only Love," suggested a burnished lyricism one sooner associates with the cello. Drummer Dickey kept almost everything light and lithe, his delicate, consistently shimmering cymbal work the right response to the torrent of sound around him.
But there was one more element at play here: the room itself. The smaller of Constellation's two studios – which double as dance spaces – proved a resonant chamber for jazz trio. Notwithstanding its vaulted ceiling, the room produced no echo or excess reverberation, instead enveloping these musicians in a warm but responsive aural environment.
All of which piqued one's interest in Shipp's next recording, "Piano Sutras," in which he will take another abrupt turn, playing solo in a studio album to be released in September. If he visits Chicago to perform that music, he surely has found right room for his keyboard flights.