Archie Shepp's free-jazz all-star band was unstoppable... until they stopped themselves.
They were like a meteor that streaked by too fast. In approximately a year's time the New York Contemporary Five (NYC5) managed to squeeze out at least four records before splitting up in 1964. To mainstream jazz audiences, they barely existed. Even though they named themselves after the Big Apple, they spent a great deal of their short time together in Europe, where they were appreciated more. They were one radical group. Of course, it's hard to tell now. So much jazz has come and gone since the early/mid-1960s that it's impossible for someone my age to hear this for the ear-splitting, earth-shaking stuff that it was back then. But tenor saxophone strongman Archie Shepp was always sticking his neck out, often over the cutting edge. His penchant for discarding the traditional seemed to slip right in the spirit of the times with his gospel/soul protest albums of the '70s (Attica Blues and The Cry of My People). When he formed the NYC5 along with cornetist Don Cherry and alto saxophonist John Tchicai, he arrived at the party a little too early ... and left too early, too.
When Shepp, Cherry and Tchicai met up with bassist Don Moore and drummer J.C. Moses, the writing was on the wall: free jazz. Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane had already been paving stones out of the traditional and bebop humdrums. Everyone's sense of possibility was suddenly at a new level. In no time at all, the NYC5 took to the studio and the stage, looking to challenge and bewilder anyone who happened to be present. A live album from a Copenhagen show was pressed and distributed by Sonet in two volumes. When CD technology came along, the two volumes were fused together as Archie Shepp and the New York Contemporary Five, with one track, the Cherry original "Cisum", omitted. Now Chicago-based label Delmark has re-released half of the live collection with "Cisum" intact at the very beginning, where it was supposed to be all this time.
The NYC5 was often aided by a sixth member who came in the form of an arranger. You may wonder, "why arrange free jazz?", until you realize that it's trumpeter Bill Dixon handling chart duties, a guy who's not exactly known for his Ellingtonian swing. His transcriptions of Ornette Coleman's "O.C.," Tchicai's "Mik," and the aforementioned "Cisum" pit all three horns together in unison for the most part, but it's the NYC5's violent attack that makes them sound like possessed and frustrated numbers. Press material from Delmark takes steps to warn the listener that Archie Shepp and the New York Contemporary Five favors a warts-and-all performance over flawlessness. True, you do get that. Not only do you get technical warts, you get cracked, bleeding skin. The notes are short and sharp, giving you a pretty good impression of what it's like to get knifed by a sax. Improvisations go all over the place, from the players' bebop backgrounds to territory uncharted as of 1963. J.C. Moses solos furiously on "Cisum" before closing out the tune in a manner not unlike every pot and pan in your kitchen dropping simultaneously.
So why does the band settle into Thelonious Monk’s "Crepuscule with Nellie" on the second track? Perhaps it's a strategic move to catch their breathe before launching into some Coleman, or maybe they had to give the crowd some sort of anchor amid all the outrageous new stuff. But this two-minute easy chair number unintentionally gives us a glimpse into a band that never fully explored the respect they gave their elders. Like a punk band covering the Beatles, the NYC5 were unafraid to stand in the field of free jazz, surrounded by their peers, give the past a glance over and shrug "c'mon people, it wasn't all lame, was it?"
Shepp's original "The Funeral" is unsurprisingly solemn, but it carries a confidence fully equipped to completely bury the past. The NYC5 embodied that confidence all the way, even if they weren't ready to let go of the Monk covers entirely. This raw, flawed set illustrates that if this group had been together longer than a year or so, music might not have been the same.