Archie Shepp

>> Saturday, July 16, 2011



My first exposure to Archie Shepp was the New Thing At Newport album. I came to that by way of Coltrane who I was already familiar with, and when I bought the album, I played his side first. Then I turned the album over. When I heard Shepp I was amazed. I had never heard a horn player do anything like it. He was reinventing the instrument and expanding its emotional range tenfold in the process. I have never forgotten that album and never stopped listening to Shepp since then.

Shepp has been labeled "Afrocentric" by detractors for his appearances at the Pan African Festival, Kwanzaa. Is he supposed to be something else? Seems to me he just plays whatever he wants to. The Newport album was a true masterpiece. After that he was labeled avant garde. But if you love ballads, get hold of Déjà vu' and True Ballads (for those who thought he was just an avant garde musician). I have a friend (a mainstreamer) who had heard some Shepp and didn't like him: I burnt him copies of Déjà Vu and True Ballads and told him Shepp was one of the greatest ballad players ever. After listening to them my friend came back and agreed with me. In the first line of his portrait in Penguin's: Shepp once declared himself something 'worse than a romantic, I'm a sentimentalist'.

He also commands the field of jazz funk (examples such as Attica Blues (Dig)) and can play bebop (Looking At Bird) with the best of them. Is that recidivist? I don’t think so. What it does is demonstrate his credentials for those who come up with the lame old line that he plays avant garde music because he can’t handle the traditional stuff. Shepp started out in blues and early rock & roll. He never lost his strong blues orientation while growing to become a premier avant garde jazz performer. His pairing with both Abdullah Ibrahim (and Horace Parlan produced prodigious results because they were well adapted to each other. Shepp has been around the block, working with musicians ranging all the way from Chet Baker and Abby Lincoln to Sun Ra, Lester Bowie, Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, Siegfried Kessler, and lately Roswell Rudd.











A particularly wonderful anecdote offered by Lester Bowie on February 1999 when he was interviewed at Sistas' Place. In speaking about the Sun Ra All-Star group of the mid-eighties that he toured with, Lester related this tale: Archie Shepp and Sun Ra had been going at it, egos clashing, Archie not wanting to make rehearsals and generally being uncooperative. Lester became the self-appointed peacemaker. On the occasion of one concert, during a great Sun Ra arrangement of Poinciana, put together for this ensemble, Sunny became vexed at Archie when the tenor saxophonist decided to stand up to take a solo without being asked. Sun Ra went over to Archie and took the microphone away from his sax during the solo. Undaunted, Mr. Shepp went to another microphone and continued to blow. The ever-resourceful Sun Ra pulled directorial rank and conducted the band in a space chord that swelled to volcanic level. The sounds drowned Archie out. According to Lester, Archie was mad as hell, threatening and swearing what he was going to do to Sunny. Lester says he saw John Gilmore physically transform himself into a snake. Marshall Allen made similar defensive and protective moves. Totally amazed, but understanding what was happening, even though Lester had never seen anything like it in his life, he took Archie to the side to cool him out. "Man, you hip to Jim Jones and Jonestown, Archie," Lester said. "This is a motherfuckin’ cult, man. You better be cool. Cause these cats will kill your ass." With these words, Lester in his inimitable way said that Mr. Shepp came to his senses.
My personal favorite albums by Shepp are:

John Coltrane & Archie Shepp - New Thing at Newport 1965

Archie Shepp - Déjà Vu (AKA French Ballads) 2001
Archie Shepp - Montreux 1976-2009
True Ballads 1996-2009
Archie Shepp Quartet - True Blue 1998-2009
Archie Shepp & Mal Waldron - Left Alone Revisited 2002-2009
Archie Shepp & Siegfried Kessler - First Take 2005

I very deliberately put New Thing At Newport and Déjà Vu at the top of my list. I have over 70 albums by Shepp which is about half of his output, as far as I know. I am planning to fill in the rest in the future, if I can spare the dime. I am particularly curious about a late in the game item: The Impulse Story 2006, a double CD recording containing Coltrane's A Love Supreme including the Shepp versions. His presence on Trane’s Ascension, which I have, is also an important piece of history: that album is not only a milestone in the history of the avant garde; it is homage to many of the greatest players of the era who participated in its creation.

I personally think Shepp is capable of doing more adventuresome things than he usually winds up with. First Take, recently, is an example of Shepp at his best. It’s a live recording with Siegfried Kessler. They do a 23 minute exploration of "The Morning of the Blacks" which is one of Shepp's own compositions that I think is breathtaking (especially the way it starts off). I posted the following elsewhere in response to someone who asked if there was some question about Shepp being funky/commercial. I know it's kinda preachy but for me it frames Shepp's work precisely the way I see it. There is absolutely nothing inappropriately commercial about Shepp's work. If anything, he has shown an incredible refinement in his later work while strengthening the feelings at its core. I've been making an effort to obtain all his recordings and the more I have been able to pick up, the greater their impact becomes. I have already said several times that he is my favorite living jazz musician. I find it sad that a lot of people are put off by him. He has a reputation as a firebrand that he will never lose no matter how much he may change. And to a degree, that is one of the things I admire about him. If you need a compass, he is the North to Wynton Marsalis' South, and I don't need to tell you where that would take me. So far as musical style, I don't think he is comparable to anyone. For me, Ornette Coleman wasn't the New Thing, Archie Shepp was...and I think he still is. I think that, like Dolphy, he will get less notice during his lifetime than he will afterwards...but that will come, because he is also a giant. A friend once said that the public have been badly served by lazy journalists when it comes to assessing his work. Ain’t it the truth! But for the best available brief biography and a collection of interviews, album reviews, and some playable tracks nothing is better as a one-stop than-
Archie Shepp at AllAboutJazz

And if you are still thirsty after that you can also get a taste at YouTube
Re Vibrato. One sax player who didn't like Shepp said to me, "He does all the things they taught us not to do in our first three months of classes." My answer was, "Yah, and he makes them work!" Shepp put the word "dirty" back in the blues the way it belonged before academically hypertrained musicians began purifying their playing and conforming to using their horns in a technically professional manner. If you listen to Shepp's singing, he sings the same way. I didn't like his singing at first. I used to say to myself, "Why doesn't this guy just stick to what he does best?" But since then his singing has been growing on me. There is something about listening to jazz that probably sounds funny coming from an atheist-you have to listen with your soul, not you brain.

Another friend of mine said, “Why listen to anyone else? Shepp has that quality. I can hear it. It’s like the song of the Siren in the Odyssey. You don’t want to bother with a musician with fewer ideas and a lesser approach. Coltrane has his grip on me too. Getz, Konitz, Rouse, Newman et al. are excellent. But they don't approach The Trane. Shepp has that quality, as does Ornette Coleman. They ruin the rest of music for me. They're too good...”

I really like that description. I think perhaps it articulates what attracts me to Shepp and why the effect is so powerful. I guess I have felt for a long time now that certain jazz musicians make all the rest sound like elevator music to me, but I was never able to explain it this way…. I have had people gawk at me in disbelief when I tell them that only about 1% of all the jazz I hear really turns me on. There are many musicians who rise to that level occasionally which is why, if you look at what I am saying, there are so many different musicians on my Desert Island track list. But very few musicians have ever had that effect on me consistently. It's hard to remember back that far and be certain but I think early Miles, and Coltrane did going back to the early '60s. The musicians who I know for certain that have hit me that hard since are few indeed-Eric Dolphy, Lester Bowie, and Archie Shepp. And you are right they did ruin the rest of the music for me. That's probably why I have so much difficulty discussing jazz with a lot of the people. For them, the experience is very different from mine. Most of them are not pulled as hard in one direction as I am and they probably are more sensitive to subtle differences among the other players than I am. I have run into musicians who could recognize where I was at and I didn't have to try to explain it to them. But not many non-musicians know where I'm coming from. I know I am not unique in this respect, but I don't think the typical jazz fan winds up in this position. Probably the most extreme example I know of is that guy who followed Bird all over the place recording his solos. And it's not just fans. I think it happens far more often to musicians. Think of how many guys wound up killing themselves trying to sound like Miles or Trane. And look what Monk did to Steve Lacy. These few players that have that effect are the Pied Pipers of jazz. And some of us are like the children who would follow them without thinking twice into the magic opening in the side of the mountain; while the others, the adults, cannot hear the Piper's call and do not know where the children have gone. Actually, it's a relief when someone tells me that they can hear what I hear listening to Shepp or Bowie. It's reassuring to know I'm not crazy, even if the other people, who don't hear what I do, think I am.

As an addendum, way back when, I had been following Trane from way back when he first joined Miles. When the New Thing at Newport album came out, I think I had had no exposure to Shepp as yet. So I bought it and took it home and played it at a single sitting. I played the Trane side first; nothing strikingly new there, but I enjoyed it all the same because Trane was probably my favorite musician at that point. Then I turned the album over to play the other side. I was stunned. I had never heard anything remotely like it before in my life. I don't know what Shepp said to me back then, but whatever it was went straight to a place inside where no one had ever penetrated to before. And as you described, I can still hear it. If you want to take this exploration a step further, get that album and play it the way I did. First Trane, then Shepp. I think you will see exactly what I mean. It was THE perfect way to meet Shepp. Who could ask for anything better?

To pull another comparison out of left field, and this is the last one, I was once trying to explain to someone why I liked abstract expressionist art and made the remark that I didn't like paintings that had lines in them. My ex-wife piped up with the crack, "That's because you hate organization-in every way, shape, and form!" Not entirely true, but when it comes to any form of art-I really thrive on the unpredictable. And Archie Shepp is all of that.



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