So inspired by the possibly shortest retirement in the history of music, Matthew Shipp finished recording one of the best albums (jazz or otherwise) of 2000 in Pastoral Composure and immediately re-assembled most of the same band (swapping Roy Campbell for Wadada Leo Smith) for New Orbit just three months later. Here’s Gary Giddins for the billionth time, in his write-up of New Orbits as the fifth best jazz album of 2000: “This is his second trumpet quartet record of the year, after the more conventional but worthy Pastoral Composure (Thirsty Ear), which tackled hard bop (“Visions”—good blindfold test material) and Ellington. It represents a major breakthrough for him as a composer and is a knockout forum for Wadada Leo Smith, whose trumpet never sounded more compelling. William Parker is, as ever, an orchestra unto himself, and, with drummer Gerald Cleaver, the quartet moves in block formation. It’s not a toe-tapper, but the music is filled with hooks and counterpoints and witty asides, not to mention the joy of freshness—you haven’t heard this before. Is it jazz? Damn right.”
Me, I have a hard time believing this is better than Pastoral Composure, even if Wadada Leo Smith has a more striking sound than Roy Campbell (it’s lovely hearing the contrast between his bold playing over the more contemplative rest of the band on “Syntax”). There’s nothing here as good as the rising tide of “Gesture” or as compelling as what Shipp does to “Frere Jacques” (second only to what Mahler did to the song in his first symphony). And worried that my rankings of these two albums might be because my conventional tastes, I also don’t think this is better than Andrew Hill’s Dust (also from 2000, ranked #12 in Gary Giddins’ same list), or that New Orbit is necessarily more difficult than Pastoral Composure. For one thing, New Orbit is 10-tracks at 39 minutes compared to Pastoral Composure’s 9-tracks at 48 minutes, which is to say the tracks here are more bite-sized: only two tracks cross the seven-minute mark and four of these songs are dedicated to the recurring “Orbit” theme. And furthermore, the “Maze Hint” miniature aside, the biggest experiments on New Orbits are affairs confined to two persons each: Shipp tinkering over a prepared piano with Cleaver on “Paradox X”; Wadada Leo Smith trumpeting over William Parker’s bowed bass on “Paradox Y.” Both songs are initially impressive in sound, but fail to stack up to the full band experiences of “Chi,” “U Feature” or “Syntax.”
And regardless of how they may create a more album’s album experience, I’m surprised by the number of reviews that praise the “Orbit” theme: it’s more appetizer and palette cleanser than they are main entrée.