Archie Shepp is an artist whose work, while not always successful, nevertheless remains compelling and worth a listen. The Cry of My People is not his best effort, but one can respect his maverick approach to jazz scholarship that resists classification and challenges the notion of what can be defined as jazz. This album comes from a period in the early seventies where Shepp was absorbing all manner of black music from gospel to blues to Ellington into his compositions. The result is an recording that is consistently interesting, although a bit schizophrenic.
Employing a very large ensemble that includes a choir and string section along with an expanded jazz group, Shepp stubbornly refuses to mix his influences, yet he obviously views them all as part of a vast continuum of musical expression. Listeners may be bewildered by the opening “Rest Enough,” a straightforward gospel tune, and equally puzzled by the segue into “A Prayer,” a brooding instrumental composed by Cal Massey, who arranged the album and died shortly after completing his work. After another gospel tune comes “The Lady,” a bleak tune with a suitably resigned vocal by Joe Lee Wilson. The first half of the record veers from the exuberance of the gospel music to the haunting beauty of a more mainstream jazz sound, yet Shepp remains the guiding force with his stinging, restless attack on both tenor and soprano sax, a dizzying squall of powerful notes.
Further resisting categorization, the second side embraces the dissonant chanting and ominous drone of African music on the title track and the “African Drum Suite.” Although challenging, this side teeters between being repetitive and jarring, yet it's redeemed at the end by a lovely treatment of Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” featuring a great vocal by Wilson and fiery, passionate soloing by Shepp, showing why he was so highly regarded by artists such as Coltrane.
Those who peg Shepp as a member of the avant-garde may be surprised by how accessible The Cry of My People is, regardless of whether or not they can embrace the adventurous nature or social consciousness of his work. Clearly his approach isn’t for everyone. Shepp fans, of course, will be delighted to see this one back in print.
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