St. Louis Blues
US release date: 13 March 2001
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Perhaps not the most way-out but certainly the most radical, passionate and perpetually angry (or so it seemed at the time) of the ‘60s Free Jazz movement, Archie Shepp is one of a kind. Albums like Four for Trane(1964) and Attica Blues(1972) were the epitome of the then avant-garde—aesthetically and politically. They remain key statements and are still uncomfortably powerful, even today. Firmly ensconced in academia since the early ‘70s, Shepp still records regularly and one of the points of interest in these two very different sets is to see whether the fires of younger days and more militant times are still burning. The answer is yes but with a softer, mellow glow, rather than a raging inferno. He has not quite picked up pipe and slippers but the tone is deeper, bluesier, and the dominant mood, especially on St. Louis Blues, is relaxed and reflective.
These things are relative of course. Shepp is never, thankfully, going to be Kirk Whalum or Gerald Albright. The atonal and the dissonant still drive his creative energy. However, he has definitely re-assessed his relationship to the more melodic side of the jazz tradition. Once, when under constant attack for either destroying jazz or being unable to actually play, free-jazzers were wont to reply that they were simply returning the form to its early roots in collective improvisation or in African rhythms. It was largely bluff—but is perhaps true of these sessions. Shepp and his co-conspirators seem to be endeavouring to explore some very ancient structures, stripping away the detritus of history and commerce to reveal an emotional and unsoiled core. Less sympathetically, it might be argued that the music sounds like a mixture of New Orleans, Chicago and Kansas pre-war styles played by very drunken people.
Whichever route you take, the outcome is that this music is not nearly so difficult or off-putting as most would imagine. It swings, lopsidedly it must be admitted, and is capable of a very direct poetry. It is also, and this needs emphasising, not just about Shepp. The live set is really Rudd’s baby and the most enthralling musical aspect of the studio session is the bass playing of Richard Davis. Others pitch in as well. Both records have moments of outstanding beauty and power and whatever your final opinion on the players, no-one can accuse them of lacking character.
Trombonist Rosewell Rudd is so full of the stuff that he dominates even a line-up that, apart from Shepp, includes Grachan Moncur, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille and the poet Amiri Baraka. His gutbucket sound is big, bold and at times unduly overwhelming. With Moncur behind him this might be rather too much trombone for even brass band fans. Mostly, though, the sheer good-natured robustness of his playing has a rough charm. Rudd’s first love was Louis Armstrong and his feel for the first flowering of jazz is evident throughout. Rudd was part of the key Shepp quartet of ‘64-‘68 but is no longer, as he seemed then, a junior partner. His compositions make up half of the ten tracks and his personality slightly more than that.
This is a reunion record and has all the warmth and some of the shambling behaviour you would expect from such an occasion. There are some pieces that would sound exciting whatever the circumstances. “Ujamma”, with Shepp on untidy but effective piano behind the horns, is a beautiful, modernist jam, while the rollicking “Acute Motelitis” and the almost danceable “Banano” represent the exuberant side of the set. Low points include a lamentable poem from Baraka—toe-curling drivel—and, for some listeners, the singing of Shepp. Now Shepp has good phrasing and uses it well on the tender ballad “Deja Vu”, where he comes across as a jazzier Tom Waits. On “Steam”, one of his finest songs, he does not fare so well with the more complex melodic line. All this talk of piano and singing points to the awkward fact that we don’t actually get to hear that much of the great man’s tenor sound. In fact, on first hearing I barely noticed it. Even on the fine uptempo closer, “Hope No.2”, his piano is more in evidence even though he switches between instruments. It should really have been Rosewell Rudd featuring Archie Shepp on the cover.
For the full Shepp experience, “St. Louis Blues” is the better album, although it lacks the energy and sheer fun of the live set. Compensation comes in two prime forms. Firstly, Shepp’s sax has never sounded so rich and satisfying. Secondly, Richard Davis produces sounds on the bass unlike any you will hear elsewhere. “Total Package” is his feature piece and contains a variety of effects and phrases that must qualify for performance of the year. His work throughout is resonant and reliable, but on this track he explores areas that are totally his own.
As if in response to this wizardry, Shepp seems in particularly creative mode. A sense of what has gone before is again emphasised and much of the album is taken up with readings of standards. The blues are always present, not only in the potent rendering of the title track but also in “God Bless the Child” and Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa”. That has had its bossa elements removed completely but its blues elements enhanced considerably. Shepp shows himself to be a thoughtful, meditative exponent of the great art; his blues aesthetic has a freedom but is suitably full of emotion. He sings as well, with plus marks for a straight K.C. approach to “St.Louis Blues” and minus points for a quavering “God Bless”. However, neither number would have suffered if Shepp had concentrated on his tenor playing completely, which is as distinctive as ever but seems enriched by the historical aura that surrounds these tunes.
The second half of the set features mostly Shepp compositions and involves a journey from the blues back to Africa, all viewed through the lens of ‘60s modernism. It is highly charged, occasionally harsh, but in the end a persuasive performance. It is not easy listening. Shepp is in full control, although Davis is a fine co-pilot. Sonny Murray and Leopoldo Fleming use the percussion as tonal colouring rather than as rhythmic pulse. As a rule, this is a mistake but such is the command that Shepp’s playing demonstrates that a more rigid, if funkier, drum sound would have been a distraction.
If free jazz is about investigation and discovery, then no-one does it better than the tenor man in this type of setting. The idea is to really hear each sound that the instrument produces. That can be a hesitant and wearing experience. Here it is not, thanks to the assuredness of the players. This is the history of black music refracted through a unique prism. It is familiar yet strange—like remembering and encountering something new at the same instant. It is not always a comfortable experience but it is a worthwhile one. The African-esque “Limbuku” and “Omega” have a somber magnificence that should not be ignored.
So, if you are after the extrovert side of free playing go for the live recording, and if you want Shepp uncut try the studio session. Most fans will lap up both. There has been an argument recently that experimental jazz should cut the binds that tie it to jazz history and seek an audience elsewhere. This is valid for a number of projects but not Shepp’s. The tradition matters on both outings, even if it is stretched almost beyond recognition. It is in the “almost” that Shepp’s genius resides. He may not be at the barricades in the way he once appeared to be but he is still deeply engaged and stands out easily from the crowd. The difference is that now his gaze is in both directions: to the past and towards the future. Perhaps it always was and we are just catching up. Whatever, he still makes his vantage point seem an exciting place to be.
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