Several recent sightings of the ‘bird’ known as Archie Shepp signal, perhaps, his return to the American dialogue on jazz. Last year, Shepp made a guest appearance on guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly’s African/urban Boom Bop
record and the year before he was the featured guest of Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio recording, Conversations
. Shepp’s voice in the 1960’s ‘new thing’ in jazz fueled John Coltrane’s Ascension
recording, plus those by Cecil Taylor, Max Roach, and the New York Contemporary Five. The fiery jazzman and playwright turned into a college educator and did not take an active public role in America’s jazz revival of the 1980s and 90s (at least not within the context of domestic jazz releases).
This 1998 European recording, licensed to the domestic label Jazz Magnet, hopefully opens the door for a stateside presence to Archie Shepp. He has assembled a trio of his sixties peers (plus percussionist Leopoldo Fleming) including the innovative, free-drummer Sunny Murray, a staple of the bands of Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor and bassist Richard Davis, the timekeeper for Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Wes Montgomery, and Elvin Jones. St. Louis Blues, like his duo records with Horace Parlan for Denmark’s SteepleChase Records, reduce each composition to its essence. Like the late recordings of Billie Holiday, Shepp favors substance over technique and style, although he displays plenty of style throughout. What other modern (living) tenor saxophonist, besides Sonny Rollins, can be identified after a couple notes? Shepp’s bluesy, gravel voice is a reminder not only of the post-Coltrane era, but what it is to develop one’s own distinctive sound in jazz.
Shepp and Davis play in duo on the title track and “God Bless The Child,” with the tenor saxophonist adding vocals to both. They take these tunes and most of the recording at a leisurely pace, opting for sentimentality over pyrotechnics. Even Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa” crawls, resonating blues over bossa nova. This is an intimate, small-room recording, where amplification is nonexistent. Drummer Sunny Murray plays the role of colorist, eschewing the ‘beat’ for shadings and remedies. Favorites include Shepp playing off Fleming’s thumb piano and hand drumming on their co-written tune “Limbuke” and the “Omega,” a meditation on the expression of John Coltrane’s late period. A fine outing, let’s hope this is just the beginning.