Saxophonist Archie Shepp defined his '60s sound with avant energy and melodic freedom, but he's mellowed quite a bit in the ensuing years. Call it maturity or perspective, but Shepp appears to be more interested these days in a return to fundamentals. On St. Louis Blues, he approaches the blues form with a trio of players who've gone as far "out" as anyone in jazz. Ironically, Richard Davis settles down deep into an old-time blues strut here; and Sunny Murray elaborates an ambling pulse and groove. As the disc moves on, we get to hear more collective improvisation. By the last track, there's no confusion at all that these guys can play as free as the best of them. It's an interesting mix. St. Louis Blues may not be what you'd expect from a trio of free jazz veterans, but it works amazingly well.
On the opening duo with Davis, Shepp articulates the tone and thrust of the St. Louis Blues. His deliberate, throaty tenor solo leads into crusty, heart-felt vocals. One has the sense here that the craggy edges in Shepp's saxophone playing relate directly and naturally to the simple roughness of his blues shout. Davis's bass playing on the title track offers no hint of pretension: he stays on the beat, rarely straying far from the root, alternately walking and pulsing, keeping to the basics. As the record progresses, drummer Sunny Murray and percussionist Leopoldo Fleming step in. One of the biggest surprises is the way Murray plays time on this record. In addition to his signature color drumming focused on textures, accents, and shifting combinations, he prresents ample evidence that he can also respect bar-line regularity. (The occasional solo moment, as on "Et Moi," offers a peek at his vast potential when left to fly free. And as the record progresses, he heads more and more in this direction.)
The prominent highlight of St. Louis Blues is Shepp's version of Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child." Shepp's fuzzy, vibrato-rich tenor playing understates the theme; when he gets to the vocals, he makes them all his own with an ironic edge reflecting life's experience. These ten minutes flow naturally and effortlessly. Later tunes touch on Shepp's freer side, as he pauses more often to go "out": taking liberties to explore tonal color and harmonic flux. The closer, "Omega," exudes human energy and makes full use of Murray's abstract drumming. St. Louis Blues is a mature, balanced statement that the roots of free playing can be traced to the timeless organicity of the blues. This disc is a wonderful document and a major high point in Shepp's recent work.
Personnel: Archie Shepp: tenor saxophone, voice; Richard Davis: bass; Sunny Murray: drums; special guest Leopoldo Fleming: percussion.