Brendon Griffin's liner notes to the latest compilation of Gil Scott-Heron's recordings, The Best of Gil Scott-Heron (Sony BMG), acknowledge that personal problems have plagued him in recent years. 'If his humour, visionary zeal and capacity for social critique appeared infinite,' he wrote, 'Scott-Heron would bear witness to his own admission that supermen didn't exist.' Recent events have cruelly underlined the point. On July 6 this year the prodigiously talented poet, novelist, singer and musician was sentenced to two to four years in prison for violating the terms of a plea bargain on a drug possession charge. To stay out of jail he had been required to remain at an in-patient rehabilitation facility, which he left, he claimed at the hearing, because he is HIV positive and his medication for that condition had been withdrawn. The prosecution asked for it to be noted that he had also absented himself from the clinic to make an appearance with Alicia Keys. Either way, Scott-Heron has been the victim of some astonishingly bad luck, even if some of it is of his own making. His arrest, in 2001 for possession of a small quantity of cocaine - an offence for which he served time - has been persuasively attributed by his supporters to racial profiling. Now he finds himself back behind bars for plea-deal violations that he seems to have committed for the wholly reasonable purposes in one instance of maintaining his livelihood and in the other of preserving his life. It's hoped that on the inside he gets the treatment he needs both for his HIV and his substance abuse problems. He should at least have the opportunity to write, and it would be good to hear him perform again when he gets out. The Best of Gil Scott-Heron is a timely reminder of just how good he can be. This compilation - confusingly, it's the same title as an earlier, shorter one that features mostly different tracks - concentrates on 1970s and early 80s recordings and, accordingly, misses some good later work, but nevertheless includes a representative selection of his best-known songs, starting with his second album. Scott-Heron started out as a writer with poetry and fiction, but was also enough of a singer and pianist to feel at home around jazz musicians, and during a brief stint at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania he formed a long-lasting alliance with keyboardist and flautist Brian Jackson. Most of the tracks on his 1970 debut, A New Black Poet - Small Talk at 125th and Lennox, feature only percussive musical accompaniment, but by the time of his second (and some would say best) album, 1971's Pieces of a Man, Jackson and Scott-Heron had brought in jazz flautist Hubert Laws, former Miles Davis bassist Ron Carter and session drummer Bernard 'Pretty' Purdie with impressive results. The jazz musicians gave the poet's words added rhythmic force, and provided a musical parallel text that enriched them immeasurably. The fruits of the collaboration have proven much more durable than most verse and jazz experiments, and include his best-known work, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, his tribute to the healing power of jazz, Lady Day and John Coltrane, Home is Where the Hatred Is and the title track, all of which are included on this CD. The album gave Scott-Heron a reputation as a witty and perceptive social commentator, which he extended through later songs such as The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues, Johannesburg (oddly not selected for this compilation, although it was a hit) and H20gate Blues. The blues tracks demonstrate a genuine feeling for the form, and an ability to extend its lyrical horizons beyond well-worn formulae, and he also experimented with reggae, as Storm Music demonstrates. But for better or worse Scott-Heron's reputation in black music now rests largely on the obvious influence he has had on hip hop. In 2002, he made a guest appearance on First in Flight on the Blackalicious album, Blazing Arrow, but he dislikes the violent aspects of rap, and clearly has reservations about some of the performers who pay lip service to his pioneering work. 'There's a big difference between putting words over some music and blending those same words into the music,' he says. 'There's not a lot of humour. They use a lot of slang and colloquialisms and you don't really see inside the person. Instead you just get a lot of posturing.' His 1993 album Spirits included a track called Message to the Messenger which went a step further and issued the rappers of the era with a warning that they needed to clean up their language, ditch their guns, and face up to their responsibilities to the constituencies they addressed. As an artist, Scott-Heron has always taken those responsibilities seriously, and much of the political material on this album - B Movie for example, an attack on the Reagan administration - while obviously of its time still sounds apposite today. As a man, though, he hasn't always been up to taking his own counsel, at least vis a vis drugs. The voice of wisdom on secular sermons like The Bottle and Home is Where the Hatred Is belongs to a man who certainly knows now what it's like to stand in the shoes of the characters in those songs, even if he didn't when he wrote them. It's a tragedy to see him brought so low. Pieces of a Man now sounds sadly descriptive of its author, but he isn't yet 60, and provided he gets his HIV medication should have plenty of creative life in him yet. Let's hope it's not also to be his epitaph. 'I hear the sound of sirens/ Come knifing through the gloom/ But they don't know what they're doing/ They could hardly understand/ That they're only arresting/ Pieces of a man.'