By Bob McMahon
By Allison Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By Carolina de Busto
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
Right there, in what should be the gatefold of what should be the LP jacket, is the answer: Scrawled in Matthew Shipp's looping cursive are the words "Cosmic Consciousness." Each romantic arc is inscribed within a grid; every point may be plotted in a system inadequate to fix such scattered sublimity; the whole remains irreducible to its descriptive register.
Matthew Shipp's New Orbit,the fourth release on his Blue imprint, is a suite, one understands, prepared for trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, here installed in a quartet with William Parker (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums). It's Shipp's most cohesive set yet to see release, organically developed with the permutational approach to ensemble playing that has become his signature gesture as a leader.
It seems right that within the greater orbital ellipse, the music is bracketed by "Paradox"es X and Y. No pianist in the idiom complicates diachrony and synchrony, line and cluster, like Shipp. Parker is Shipp's telepathic flame, the two having anchored and propelled David S. Ware's quartet for the past decade, and has the deepest bag of anyone now working the instrument; Cleaver is solid and subtle, a sure chthonic presence in the kit. But it's Smith, replacing the more- than-able Roy Campbell, who's the ringer. He's in a period of heightened profile, recording for Tzadik, making away with Susie Ibarra's exquisite Flower After Flowerand completing Shipp's orbit. A trumpeter whose angularity is welded to his lyricism, it's small wonder that he has nested here.
New Orbit's theme, a stark melodic statement that recurs throughout, announces itself immediately. "New Orbit" is arranged for the quartet with lush conventionality; on "Orbit 2," Shipp's solo piano circles the theme deliberately, teasing out sparse new lines; "Orbit 3" is a solo for bowed bass that glides through the melody's undercurrents; the closing "Orbit 4" places the theme in duo interplay, with Parker's bowed scrapes weaving a thread of disquiet. Smith's playing on the triste "Syntax" is evocatively Milesian, and on "Maze Hint" is inimitably Smith as himself, built of blind corners, blurts and reversals. "U Feature" is an antic pianoless jaunt; "Paradox Y" builds a duet around an elaborately bowed bass drone that unwinds like frayed cable while the trumpet fades from blunt harmonic collisions to quiet resonance.
Matthew Shipp's New Orbit is grid and ellipse, the improviser's art of "grace, intelligence and cunning" come again around.