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Archie Shepp: Kwanza

Chris May By

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Albert Ayler flamed like phosphorous for a few years, spoke like an Old Testament prophet, wore leather trousers and died young in mysterious circumstances. Archie Shepp burned just as bright, but has lived to a ripe age, growing to embrace the mainstream, and has had one foot in academe for much of his career. The two saxophonists, along with John Coltrane, personified the Impulse! label during its giddy zenith, but Ayler's highly marketable legend, now of mythic proportions, has grown to overshadow Shepp's contributions to the label and the "new thing."

Kwanza catches Shepp at his most funked up and glorious. It was recorded over four sessions, between September 1968 and August 1969, a time when psychedelia and Blackism's twin recalibrations of jazz convention were at their most fervid. Primal R&B values were fascinating the avant-garde, along with what would now be called world music and an avowed, Maoist anti-intellectualism (the latter essentially an affectation, and one hilariously observed by Tom Wolfe in Radical Chic And Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970).

Shepp, though himself an intellectual, was part of this back-to-the-roots-and-outwards movement. Kwanza, and the nearly contemporaneous The Way Ahead (Impulse!, 1968), recorded with the same core musicians, were his mature statements in a trajectory which had hit the backbeat with the New Orleans fonk-informed Mama Too Tight (Impulse!, 1966).

Surrounding himself with the cream of the "new thing" players, Shepp maintained his commitment to free and collective improvisation, but combined it now with structured arrangements rooted in gospel and the blues. Bass ostinatos, keyboard vamps and drum backbeats drive the music, along with raw R&B horn charts and sweating, testifying horn solos.

Ace fellow travellers like organist/pianist Dave Burrell, trombonist Grachan Moncur III and trumpeter Jimmy Owens help Shepp keep the unexpected happening against these repititious, cyclical structures. First-generation bebop baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne, a relative old-timer here, blows his fine wild heart out on Cal Massey's "Bakai."

Kwana is roughly contemporaneous with Ayler's most considered R&B statement, New Grass (Impulse!, 1968), whose visceral passion it approaches without wholly abandoning the cerebral in the process. There are close affinities too with the work of some artists on the post-Alfred Lion, late-1960s Blue Note label, recently compiled on the double-disc set Righteousness. A great little chunk of history, and with the power still to move the listener.

Track Listing: Back Back; Spoo Pee Doo; New Africa; Slow Drag; Bakai.

Personnel: Archie Shepp: tenor saxophone, vocal (3); Jimmy Owens: trumpet (1,3); Martin Banks: trumpet (2); Woody Shaw: trumpet (4); Grachan Moncur 111: trombone (1,3); Matthew Gee: trombone: (4); James Spaulding: alto saxophone (1); Clarence Sharpe: alto saxophone (4); Charles Davis: baritone saxophone (1,3); Cecil Payne: baritone saxophone (4); Robin Kenyatta: flute (2); Dave Burrell: organ (1), piano (3); Andrew Bey: piano (2); Cedar Walton: piano (4); Wally Richardson: guitar (1); Bert Payne: guitar (2); Bob Busnell: bass (1); Albert Winston: bass (2); Walter Booker: bass (3); Wilbur Ware: bass (4); Bernard Purdie: drums (1); Beaver Harris: drums (2,3); Joe Chambers: drums (4); Leon Thomas, Tasha Thomas, Doris Troy: vocals (2).

Title: Kwanza | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Impulse!

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