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Keith Jarrett vs. Matthew Shipp

Two piano masters, disparate yet with unlikely affinities, hit NYC this week.

By Hank Shteamer |
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Keith Jarrett and Matthew Shipp would seem to represent the north and south poles of the jazz-piano globe. Each epitomizes a different extreme: The 65-year-old Jarrett, playing Carnegie Hall solo on Sunday, stands as the towering mystic of the jazz mainstream, who transcended idiom a quarter century ago with the crossover smash Köln Concert. Shipp, hitting Iridium alongside bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey on Thursday in advance of a handsome 50th-birthday set, Art of the Improviser, persists as a resilient outsider, maintaining strong ties to NYC's free-jazz community even as he assails its orthodoxies.

Look again, though, and commonalities emerge. For one, Jarrett and Shipp each thrive on a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward jazz convention. Both have used hoary standards as an intermittent home base in their careers—witness Jasmine, Jarrett's exquisitely nostalgic 2010 duo session with bassist Charlie Haden, and Art of the Improviser's masterful slice-and-dice of "Take the 'A' Train." But both have also lobbed grenades at the purists: Jarrett via his classical and multi-instrumental forays, Shipp through a number of electronics-driven experiments. (Sometimes the grenades are verbal, as evidenced by the keyboardists' shared reputation for deep-seated cantankerousness.) 

What really unites these players, though, is their relentless pursuit of beauty. There's a special kind of bluesy rapture that only Jarrett's nakedly emotional flights can provide. Likewise, Shipp's genius lies in the way he balances thunderstorm improv with lush meditations on his own somber, stately themes.

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