When a jazz musician goes from avant energy music toward age-old standards, the move is usually viewed in one of two ways. Either the artist receives criticism as a traitor who backed off from a forward vision, or he earns respect for moving the spirit of his music in a new direction. Tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp has seen more than his share of both. Purity is in the ear of the beholder, it seems.
Shepp's quartet date I Know About The Life was recorded in 1981 and originally issued on Sackville. This reissue brings the music to digital format in a more than satisfactory fashion, although it oddly preserves the misspelling in the artist credits. Shepp is joined here by pianist Kenny Werner, bassist Santi Debriano, and drummer John Betsch. This particular combination serves as a generous platform for the leader to say what he needs to say.
Thelonious Monk opens and closes the program with "Well You Needn't" and "Round Midnight" respectively. The former sails along with the off-kilter rhythmic bent that characterized the original. Shepp has no trouble settling into a hard-swinging groove, making the transition from head to solo without so much as a pause. His tone is beautifully raw, thick with irregular overtones, throaty and slurred. He accrues a series of short phrases to form a coherent statement. But when it comes to composition, he respects the song form; there's no doubt it came from Monk.
The gentle title track borrows Kenny Werner's particular talent for lyrical expression, placing the pianist in more of a forward position. Here Shepp replaces his craggy tone with a softer, rounder sound, though there's plenty of timbral color to go around. "Giant Steps" acknowledges the leader's debt to Coltrane in an articulate fashion, with eight minutes of no-holds-barred improvisation along those strange minor third sequences. It has the most sharp and edgy moments on the record. The closer, "Round Midnight," has a lazy, smoky feel of recovery, though it picks up briefly as it closes.
Whatever your opinion may be on out cats coming in, this record provides timely and effective evidence that it's possible to bring the adventure and tone of the avant-garde down to earth. These standards have enough of "the life" to make them viscerally real, and even more conservative listeners will find them refreshing.
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