Sunday, December 11, 2011

Archie Shepp's Free Jazz Had Strong Cultural Roots

Among the Universal reissues celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Impulse Records is For Losers/ Kwanza by Archie Shepp. Among those inspired by John Coltrane, Shepp brought together a fiery, passionate style but one rooted both in traditional as well as funk and soul music of the time while also bringing a strong focus on his culture and community. These two albums were recorded at the same sessions in 1969 or so.

For someone associated with ‘free jazz,’ the music has strong foundation the funk of James Brown and Junior Walker. This is clear on the opening track from The Losers, Stick it Up which has a Leon Thomas vocal with Doris Troy and Tasha Thomas providing backing vocals while Mel Brown adds guitar. Even better is Abstract with some nice trombone from Graham Moncur III. Chinalin Sharpe takes the vocal on Ellington’s I’ve Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good), with Shepp’s tenor embellishing the vocal with a Ben Webster-styled vibrato and alto saxophonist Clarence Sharpe solos marvelously. Cecil Payne adds flute behind Shepp’s robust tenor on Cal Massey’s lovely ballad What Would It Be Without You. The centerpiece of The Losers was Shepp’s Un Croque Monsieur (Poem: For Losers), an extended composition opening on a tight, funky, rhythmic vamp leading to strong energetic and at times free ensemble playing followed by a segment Shepp playing a sour sounding soprano sax, followed by Claritin Sharpe singing Shepp’s poem about everybody loves a winner and who gives a damn for losers. Others on this very strong performance include trumpeter Woody Shaw, Payne on baritone sax, and Clarence Sharpe on alto sax.

While recorded at many of the same sessions, the music on Kwanza was inspired by celebration of ‘Kwanza,’ which Shepp refers to as ‘our traditional African holy week.” In the reproduced liner notes of Emilan Sudan, it is noted that Shepp’s three contributions reflect the sounds of the African communities in the US. With selections such as Back Back, we get more heavy James Brown inspired funk as Shepp solos over the funk groove of Dave Burrell on organ, Wally Richardson on drums and Bernard Pretty Purdie on drums as he preaches the funk blues like a frenzied mix of post-bebop and Screaming R&B honker while Graham Moncur III adds his tailgating trombone. Leon Thomas handles the vocal as well as scatting and yodeling on Spoo Pee Doo, on which Robin Kenyatta’s flute stands out. One of the centerpieces of this album was Moncur’s New Africa, from a session Bob Thiele supervised and is a freer performance with Burrell on piano,Walter Booker on bass and Beaver Harris on drummers providing the foundation with Moncur’s blustery trombone and Shepp’s tenor (and yodels) joined by Jimmy Owens trumpet and Charles Davis’ baritone making for a highly animated and impassioned performance. Shepp’s Slow Drag includes Woody Shaw, Matthew Gee, Clarence Sharpe and Cecil Payne, Cedar Walton, Wilbur Ware and Joe Chambers for another passionate performance built upon a funky rhythmic figure with solos from Shaw and Shepp being especially galvanized. Cal Massey’s Bakai closed the original album as well as this reissue of the two albums and is another example of his marvelous compositions in his all to brief life. It mixes a rhythmic foundation with a strong melodic theme. Shepp plays impassioned here.

There is plenty to get the listener invigorated on this forty-odd years old recordings that have held up well over the years and remind us that Archie Shepp has been always rooted in the past but always looking forward.

I received a review copy from Jazz & Blues Report for whom this review was initially written. Here is Archie Shepp on youtube. 

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