Archie Shepp has long held a special distinction as one of the pioneers of the so-called New Thing in jazz. Possessed of a sharp intellect and a deep pride in his African heritage he was one of the most vocal and uncompromising skeptics, challenging both his peers and himself to question not only musical conventions but societal and cultural ones as well. Kahil El’Zabar’s path has taken a similar course and has been undeniably influenced by the example set by Shepp. Therefore their meeting makes perfect sense and the only real surprise arises out of why they didn’t collaborate sooner.
“Conversations” serves as a timely alliance and more importantly a chance to collectively celebrate of the life and talents of bassist Fred Hopkins another legendary innovator and one of the guiding lights in the history of Chicago’s creative improvised music community. Hopkins passed away shortly before this disc was recorded and his departure left a rift in the Windy City’s musical heritage that will never be filled. The opening “Conversations 1” captures this sense of loss in a poignantly rendered eulogy propelled by Shepp’s raspy tenor. Rarely has the man coaxed such naked emotion from his horn and the tender accompaniment from the trio shapes soothing rhythmic blanket around his aching lines. “Big Fred” moves past this initial melancholy into more celebratory realms and is a feature for Shepp’s fervent folklore-influenced lyrics. El’Zabar’s earthy African percussion also makes an appearance on this piece.
Regrettably Shepp and Brown spend most of the disc on different instruments, trading duties on saxophone and piano back and forth except on “Brother Malcolm” where both exchange gusty phrases on their reeds. Brown proves a far more adept pianist than Shepp, but the latter’s awkward comping on “Kari” still manages to mesh well the piece’s off-kilter groove. I was expecting more opportunities to hear them both on tenor together and their decision not feature such a combination more often was the only disappointment in an otherwise stunningly executed disc. Here’s hoping that this is only the first of many more meetings between Shepp and his like-minded friends in Chicago.
Track Listing: Conversations 1; The Introduction/ Big Fred/ Kari/ Whenever I Think of You/ Conversations 2; The Dialogue/ Brother Malcolm/ Revelations. Recorded: January 23 & 24, 1999, Riverside Studios, Chicago, IL.
Personnel: Archie Shepp- tenor saxophone, piano; Ari Brown- tenor saxophone, piano; Malachi Favors- double bass; Kahil El