The concept of greatest hits records began in the early days of albums as a way to compile an artist’s singles into one set, appealing to the consumer who otherwise only bought 45s. The idea that the adventurous pianist Matthew Shipp has a series of “hits,” greatest or otherwise, is of course at least partly a goof since his type of music never cracks Billboardcharts. But considering his prolific output—more than 10 albums as a leader since 2000 and the range of groups and ideas he’s used on each one, he deserves a primer for those just getting to know his work.
These 12 tracks stick to Shipp’s releases as a leader for Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, and though they weren’t commercial juggernauts, they received radio airplay or were singled out in reviews at the time. Shipp performs solo and leads piano trios, quartets and a few units that blend his avant-garde approach with postproduction remixing. In an overview like this, running order makes a big difference, and Greatest Hits scores points by going for dramatic impact rather than chronology.
Two different sessions with trumpeters Roy Campbell and Wadada Leo Smith contrast not only the brass attack but the way in which William Parker (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums) approach Shipp’s chord structures. That rhythm section lays down some funky grooves on the tracks to which producer FLAM adds electronica elements. (These pieces have aged remarkably well.) Two solo performances reveal Shipp’s delicate, lyrical side, while more recent trio albums prove that he’s equally adept in straighter settings and lengthy free excursions.
Listening to this snapshot of Shipp’s releases leaves one with a desire to go back and discover, or re-examine, the original albums. When it comes to compilations, there’s no greater goal.