Review: Archie Shepp/ Joachim Kuhn plus Empirical

Arche Shepp at LJF11
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. All Rights Reserved

Archie Shepp at LJF11.
Photo credit: Edu Hawkins

Archie Shepp and Joachim Kühn with Empirical at Queen Elizabeth Hall, (Thursday 17 November 2011. Review by Geoffrey Winston)

Archie Shepp and Joachim Kühn have been crossing paths for over 40 years, and their duet at the London Jazz Festival was the fruit of a collaboration that they have been building on for two years.

Shepp is an imposing figure onstage - there is something of the elder statesman about him, not only in his elegant suit and fedora, but also in his playing and choice of material. He's lost none of the vitality that has always marked out his raw, robust delivery. There's a sharp, piercing edge to his flowing tenor - an imperative to seek out half-tones and discords. Ever since his associations with Coltrane, whom he's described as "perhaps the greatest radical of the avant-garde"* and Cecil Taylor - "I was right on the frontier, on the cutting edge of music with him" - both with the music and in the political arena, it's never been in his nature to throw in the towel and to coast.

In Joachim Kühn he has a kindred spirit. Kühn is no stranger to the piano-sax duet, having notably recorded with Ornette in 1997 in his native Leipzig. His long-standing admiration for Shepp, whom he saw at the Village Vanguard in 1967, was realised first in live duets in 2009 which led to their recent album, 'Wo!man', on Shepp's Archie Ball label for Harmonia Mundi.

Kühn's Transmitting opened the set, mixing classical structures with Shepp's irrepressible, vigorous tonal play and they held a tension through the perpetual statement and restatement of the melodic core. Shepp drove this disturbed, glitchy flow to segue into Ornette's Lonely Woman which he filled out with a deeply harrowing beauty.

The standards, Sophisticated Lady and Harlem Nocturne, which saw Shepp's only flirtation with the soprano sax, and their own offerings from Wo!man - were explored with a rigorous, improvised approach, and dipped in to unexpected areas which drew on on Kühn's classical background to create a strange sense of dislocation, as though they were holding on to jazz in a non-jazz context. The tempos and pace would change on a sixpence; the intensity would be ferocious, perspiration flowing off Kühn, stabbing at the keyboard, then florid with the deftest of accents from Shepp. When quirky discord collided with delicate, haunting arpeggios, it created a happily disconcerting feeling that Liszt had met Monk or Coleman Hawkins.

The blues figured strongly in an extended piano solo which Kühn built up uncompromisingly, to the delight of Shepp and the audience. They shared the chunkiest of blues that was the natural successor to an earthy, but also lightly langorous 'Nina' dedicated to Nina Simone.

They kept up this glorious momentum for over ninety minutes, and there was the sense of having been present at an intense musical masterclass.

Worthy of the highest plaudits, too, were the tremendously tight, yet expansive quartet, Empirical, supplemented by pianist Robert Mitchell. Their music was as sharp as their threads - alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey continuing, with impressive confidence, his pursuit of Dolphy and Sanders, Lewis Wright bringing in glass-like chimes in Hutcherson's footsteps,  bassist Tom Farmer offering compositions with flair and freshness, and Mitchell's elastic fingered runs in duet with artful drummer Shane Forbes, conjured up a crisp and provocative statement of which Shepp, one is sure, would have approved.

*Scott Cashman: 'A dialogue with Archie Shepp' (Spit: A Journal of the Arts, December, 1990)

londonjazzfestival.org.uk

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