Over the course of Matthew Shipp’s Blue Series releases, I have spent a not insignificant amount of time pushing, pulling, and molding words into shape in the effort to describe Shipp’s ever-changing musical concepts. Descriptions such as “avant garde” are too generic to have a whole lot of meaning, mostly because the phrase’s overuse has drained it of color, making it as meaningful as “indie” in the rock world. In fact, when I reviewed Shipp’s Art of the Improviser, I spelled it out:
The music of jazz composer/pianist Matthew Shipp isn’t fairly described as “avant garde,” mostly because to a great many people, that categorization can be read as “I don’t understand this music, can we please leave now?”
While some might balk at the idea of cracking wise about “serious” art, I’ve always thought that it was far more important to bring as many new ears to the table as possible. Sometimes it’s that perceived seriousness that can be off-putting, bolstering the feeling that maybe the music is just too lofty for the untrained ear. That barrier to entry — the idea that the listener needs to understand the music — is not easily overcome.
With the release of Matthew Shipp’s Greatest Hits I’ve decided, almost entirely against my instincts, that this collection will help the apprehensive listener to “get” Shipp’s music. You see, my instincts almost always lead down the path of the completist. That’s a roundabout way of saying that I don’t think music should be listened to out of context, and that collections can’t properly do justice to an artist’s body of work. But this package of compositions proves me wrong, providing the listener with a concise survey of the man’s work.
By employing material from so many albums (11, to be exact), a broad sweep of Shipp’s styles and musical geographies is represented: we have solo piano in two forms with the ominous title track from 4D and the more pensive “Module” from One; various trio workouts that reach from the loping blues of Piano Vortex‘ “Key Swing” to the sonic clatter of “Stage 10″ (Elastic Aspects) to the incredible (and sprawling) “Circular Temple #1″ (from Art of the Improviser); and two ensembles featuring horns — New Orbit‘s title track has the great Wadada Leo Smith’s trumpet slowly building a story while Roy Campbell blows everything up on “Gesture” (from Pastoral Composure).
Ah, but then there are the electronics. Shipp’s use of electro-acoustic environments reveals yet another aural spectrum for consideration. On Equilibrium‘s “Cohesion,” Flam’s post-production work and Khan Jamal’s shimmering vibes gave the tune an otherworldly quality; a composition transformed by its decorations. When Harmony and Abyss‘ “New ID” came along, we got to witness Shipp’s piano smashed headlong against the beats. It’s full of twists and turns, is funky as hell, and — get this — you don’t have to “understand” it to enjoy it.
Yes, Matthew Shipp’s Greatest Hits is indeed a fun album. Dont’ worry about its “avant garde-ness,” its meaning, or anything of the sort. With a mind (and ears) newly-opened by a reduced anxiety level, you’ll be able to let that art flow right in.