As one of the most assertive tenor sax voices, and one of the most politically charged voices, of the 1960's, it seemed that Archie Shepp would never mellow. Maybe he hasn't. But his voice isn't front and center, as it was, with aggressiveness and gruffness that posited a controversial statement, whether melodically or verbally. Employing a swirl of references rooted in gospel, blues, the African diaspora, ultimately spirituality, and yet anger and exclamatory pronouncements against oppression and injustice, Archie Shepp was always consistent. His views could not be ignored.
After a prolific recording career and numerous tours, Shepp seemed to have quieted in the 1990's. Not that he stopped recording. Far from it. With a stream of releases on minor labels like Westwind, EPM Musique and Plainisphare, Shepp continued to voice his beliefs with an array of fellow musicians like Dave Burrell, Horace Parlan, Kahil El' Zabar, Cameron Brown, Clifford Jarvis and Richard Davis. And yet the interest in his music among the jazz press seemed to have diminished, and the public perception of his style among listeners became diffused.
Well, the originality of Shepp's technique never diminished, and the attitude of his personality is as sharp as ever. Finally, Jazz Magnet Records, a relatively new label, has released Shepp's St. Louis Blues,
which was recorded 3 years ago in Europe, after licensing it from the Austrian Pao Records.
Shepp's interests on St. Louis Blues
involve the common inspirational feel of the blues, bop, gospel, Middle Eastern modes and the pulse of African percussion, rather than the dramatic protests connected to his earlier plays and concerts. Shepp has recruited for the project his long-time associates Richard Davis and Sunny Murray, all three known for the freedom with which they release music from metronomic comfort and certainty.
Expectations of "anything goes," though, are put to rest early in the CD as Shepp and Davis develop their own version of the classic "St. Louis Blues." After Davis begins with a throbbing ostinato, Shepp mournfully comes in with a staggered and loose-embouchured delivery of the melody. Once Davis' walking bass creates the movement that sustains the piece, Shepp completes the song with a blues singers' woefulness and wryness. Billie Holiday's "God Bless The Child" contains the same unhurried approach that emphasizes spiritual content over technical indulgence, Shepp dynamically alternating soft phrasing with forcefulnessor tenderness with resentment. On both tracks, as an expression of down-and-outness, Shepp is accompanied by Davis' bass only. Kenny Dorham's "Blue Bossa," with more attention to the "blue" than the "bossa," is performed as a duo as well. The two of them, Shepp and Davis, work together so seamlessly and telepathically that St. Louis Blues
could be a co-led project. Rather than exploring the music freely, they establish a definite structure to the tunes that frames the emotions they intend to convey.
When Sunny Murray comes in, he infuses the tracks with splashes of color and the addition of enlightening effects, as on Davis' composition, "Total Package." Engaged in fulfilling in the concept of the music, Murray, rather than driving the tunes, embellishes them. While Shepp and Davis play from positions of strength, Murray works from a position of texture as he deepens the portraits. Often using brushes or hand drums, Murray plays thumb piano on "Limbuke" to complete to picture of an African village, which would have been more implicit without his contribution. In addition, Murray brings to life the uplift and fourth-measure lurch of his own "Et Moi."
With his photograph on the cover of JazzTimes,
Archie Shepp's is undergoing a reappreciation, due no doubt to the sit-up-and-take-notice effect of St. Louis Blues.
As listeners go back to rediscover this major jazz artist, the totality of his experience and beliefs will represent a revelation as Shepp refused to compromise, even as he lowered his voice.