REVIEW: Archie Shepp at the 2015 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Archie Shepp at the 2015 Cheltenham Jazz Festival
Photo copyright John Watson/ jazzcamera.co.uk

Archie Shepp Quartet
(Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Saturday 2nd May 2015. Review by Peter Jones)

‘Give us a smile!’ shouted someone as Archie Shepp strolled lugubriously on stage and began strapping on his saxophone without acknowledging the audience. But Archie, who turns 78 this month, has his own way of doing things, and that includes acknowledging the audience when he’s good and ready. After all, he had only stepped in at short notice due to the cancellation of Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

First known for his early Sixties avant-garde work with Cecil Taylor, then for his explorations of jazz’s African heritage, the story of Archie Shepp is also the story of the evolving political and cultural consciousness of black America. And that, of course, includes the blues, because part of Shepp’s repertoire is a powerful, throaty singing voice, which was greeted with delight by the crowd.

The band began with Hope 2, a melodic mid-tempo swinger featuring a long opening solo from its leader. Along with the fluidity we expect from a musician of Shepp’s eminence was his trademark sharpness of tone, somewhat in the vein of Sonny Rollins. It gives his music edge and urgency, as if it’s all about to spiral out of control. And then, for the first time, we heard That Voice, on Don’t Get Around Much Any More – an unexpectedly straightforward arrangement of the familiar standard, enlivened by his monumental vocal delivery.

It was followed by Revolution, which he dedicated to his grandmother. For myself this was the highlight of the set. Archie Shepp showed how deep and wide his roots go – into black history on this occasion, since his grandmother was born when slavery still existed in America (he himself has been not only a Professor of Music but a Professor of African-American Studies). The tune is a cry of anger, with a thrilling beatnik-poetry lyric which held the audience spellbound, as bassist Matyas Szandaiplayed a relentless riff over Steve McCraven’s inventive drum rhythms.

After the beautiful The Stars Are In Your Eyes, a tribute to Sarah Vaughan, it was party time again with Trippin’, a jokey 12-bar blues, hollered with gusto by Archie Shepp. By now it was evident that the man is more than a great singer and saxophonist, more than a mere retired professor. He is a consummate entertainer.

The set ended with Burning Bright, a hard-swinging contemporary number written by pianist Tom McClung, who has been with Archie Shepp for more than five years, and who here supplied the combo with an endless stream of cool and inventive playing.

LINK: Archie Shepp and Attica Blues at the 2013 London Jazz Festival

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