So it brought a mixture of surprise and amusement to see that Matthew Shipp’s new collection was dubbed Greatest Hits. Never mind that it covers only one 11-year swath (and on only one label, at that) of his voluminous career. Or that none of the songs came close to being a “hit” (it’s possible none have even been played on terrestrial radio or sold more than a few thousand copies).
This is not, of course, a perfect world. And even if it was perfect, Shipp probably would not have enough hits to fill an album. Not that his work isn’t to be admired or that he should not be wished all the success in the world. But if the world truly was perfect, then there must be something edgy and abstract enough to appeal to those who don’t soak up popular culture like brainless sponges. If a perfect world means that every good thing is seen as such, worth the same amount of attention and praise, that’s worse than the homogeneity of current popular music, and far from perfect.
So what is this, then? Is it the best of Shipp’s work on Thirsty Ear Records? A strong case could be made in support of that statement. But it is indeed a collection of Greatest Hits in the only place that matters: In Matthew Shipp’s mind. That’s not to suggest that he is deluded. Rather, given the parameters defined by the kind of music he likes and wants to make, this is the best there is. Reviewers ought to judge things at least in part based on what they perceive to be the artist’s intent. The Ramones should not be judged by the same criteria as Wayne Shorter, for example, for they are trying, on the micro level, to achieve very different things. On the macro level, however, they both are wildly successful at entertaining their audiences by doing what they do very well.
Such is the case with Shipp. When he was asked a couple of years ago about his tenure at Thirsty Ear, he said:
It takes me outside myself, which as an artist it is so easy to be completely self absorbed – but bringing in other people and having a hand in some CDs is very gratifying because it reminds you that there is a whole big world of music out here and it’s not just about you. And it’s easy to think it’s just about you because it’s so hard to survive as a jazz musician that that mindset kicks in just as a defense mechanism. And also, yes, it’s giving me a chance to explore how others deal with organizing sound in a way that I would not if I was not as involved.
With that goal in mind, it is clear from the songs on Greatest Hits that he has achieved it. While his music has been varied enough — and was so even before his association with Thirsty Ear — over his career, it has gone in directions over the past decade that would have seemed unlikely without that push and pull from the artists with which he has worked and the aesthetic of which he was a part.
Take the album-opening “Gesture,” from 2000′s Pastoral Composure. He plays with musicians he had played with before — William Parker on bass, Gerald Cleaver on drums and Roy Campbell on trumpet — if not in this precise configuration. Shipp’s insistent block chording still serves as the bedrock, here, but there is a feel to this, an augmented lyricism, perhaps, that wasn’t as present in his earlier work. It is no more or less rewarding than what came before, just different, illuminating a path that he would explore more fully moving forward.
Much is made (and not too much, mind you) of Shipp’s embrace of electronic collaborators in the Blue Series, and the third track, “Cohesion” from Equilibrium, is the first of that example here. It’s a fairly standard Shipp song, the melodic content put across by Khan Jamal’s vibes instead of the horns found on the first two tracks. But it isn’t long into the song before it becomes obvious that this is something different. That is when Flam’s synths and programming pop up. They affect the song most rhythmically, the beat suddenly chopped up, staggering and lurching forward. The effect is immediate: the listener must sit up and pay attention. How does this rub up against Parker’s bass, Cleaver’s drums and Shipp’s piano? More to the point, how do those musicians respond? This is where Shipp is “exploring how others deal with organizing sound,” and the result is a driving, propulsive track.
All is not bleeps and bloops here, however; far from it. Shipp drops two solo piano pieces here: “Module” from One and “4D” from the album of the same name. Rather than stick out, they seem to adapt to their surroundings. Shipp’s playing, so wonderfully dense and rich, seems to suggest accompaniment even when it lacks it. “4D,” in particular, needs no assistance, but the mind fills it in anyway, ascribing bass and drums to Shipp’s heavy left hand.
At other times, he plays in ways that seem informed by those electronic interactions even when they are not present. The staggering beat to “Stage 10,” coupled with Shipp literally playing every part of the piano — he plucks strings inside it and stomps the pedals to create sound — make it sound like there is more going on than would seem possible by piano-bass-drums format. Would he have gotten to this point in 2012 without the collaborations of the previous decade? Knowing Shipp’s restless nature, it is safe to say he would be somewhere in this vicinity. But all of those interactions surely have affected him for the better, have delivered him to this particular address.
That’s why, ultimately, this album feels more cohesive than one would have a right to expect. Even though there is a core of musicians — Shipp, Parker, Cleaver, and drummer Whit Dickey chief among them — that made a majority of the sounds here, the various configurations and intents here would lead one to expect a rather disparate listening experience. But these all sound like — no surprise — Matthew Shipp songs, and so there is a flow here that makes this sound of piece.
That, as we started out talking about goals, would seem to indicate a successful album, one that set out to entertain and enlighten, and met that goal with amazing results. There will be days that this will be your favorite Matthew Shipp album because it touches on such a large chunk of his back catalog in one shot. But you’ll do yourself a disservice if you stop here, for this isn’t just a compendium of radio hits that saves you from pulling out a dozen other CDs to hear them. It is a primer, the old iceberg tip. Hear this, fall in love, and then keep digging. You’ll be amazed at what you find.