REVIEW: Archie Shepp: Art Songs and Spirituals at the Barbican (2018 EFG LJF)

Archie Shepp and Amina Claudine Myers
Photo credit: Mark Allan/Barbican

Archie Shepp: Art Songs and Spirituals - with Amina Claudine Myers and Carleen Anderson
(Barbican. 19 November 2018. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by AJ Dehany)

In a career spanning nearly sixty years and more than ninety albums, Archie Shepp has always been a risk-taking artist committed to the struggle for civil rights and to music as a voice in that struggle—a voice that refuses to submit to any one style or genre. He is more than just a free jazz pioneer, but a unifying figure who believes that sharing musical knowledge should be for the many not the few.

At the Barbican during the 2018 London Jazz Festival the 81-year old saxophonist presented a concert of Art Songs and Spirituals with the aim of unifying two impulses in music that are often thought to be opposed. He explained that ‘art songs’ as developed by composers like Brahms and Schubert “were composed and we know who wrote these songs.” Spiritual songs on the other hand, such as those sung by slaves during the time of slavery in the United States, “were not composed in the sense that we know who the authors actually were.”

In his music they are part of a unified conception, as they have been throughout his career. The concert located the spiritual in the art song and the art song in the spiritual, making for a moving multi-faceted programme that brought joy to both believers and unbelievers alike. “These are songs that have religious themes. Some classical musicians like Mozart and Bach remember religious themes. Some musicians in this genre—so called jazz—have also written music around religious themes, some of which we’re going to play this evening. Not all art songs have religious themes but they usually put out a spiritual message.”

Archie Shepp
Photo credit: Mark Allan/ Barbican


He was rapturously received in a dark suit with a light pink tie and a crushed lilac scarf, part Cotton Club Rhythmaniac, part free jazz troubadour. Speaking or singing his voice is strong and his playing has held up well. Many jazz legends of his vintage at prestige gigs tend to sit it out for long periods. This is what Pharoah Sanders did last year in the same hall [REVIEW], and what we pretty much expect Abdullah Ibrahim will do this weekend closing the festival. Archie Shepp remains as committed onstage as he is offstage. The political consciousness embodied in his music gives it a strong sense of purpose and a wide-ranging musical inclusivity. His soloing is rich with the outside-the-scale explorations of free jazz that he helped to pioneer.

The two-hour concert opened with a half-hour of quartet playing with Pierre Francois Blanchard on piano, Matyas Szandai on double bass, and Hamid Drake on drums. They performed two deep cuts representing the religious and the spiritual in art music: Coltrane’s Wise One (from Coltrane’s 1964 classic quartet album Crescent), and Ellington and Strayhorn’s Isfahan (written in 1963 and dedicated to the Iranian city, released on the 1967 album The Far East Suite). The band was tight and refined, but even Shepp’s typically rule-breaking soloing in this opening ‘art songs’ section hardly prepared us for the excitement to come in the spirituals.

The stage was filled out with the addition of organist and vocalist Amina Claudine Myers, saxophonist Virgile Lefebvre, trumpeter Olivier Miconi, and the tremendous choir of nine put together by Marion Rampal and including Carleen Anderson and Cleveland Watkiss. The main ninety-minute programme of semi-secular spirituals ranged through an impressively varied palette. Kicking off with the joyous gospel surge of All God’s Children Got A Home In The Universe, the choir sang the roof off the Barbican hall. Shepp’s soprano solo in A Prayer was energetic and detailed, rich with his characteristic risk-taking outside notes. Amina Claudine Myers’ organ playing was bright and fulsome on her power gospel tune Call Him. This is a rousing, healing, nourishing music that moves your body and cleanses your soul—but a music not blind to the darker shadows of history.

Blues For Brother George Jackson, from Shepp’s landmark 1972 album Attica Blues, is dedicated to the ‘Soledad Brother’ George Jackson, who was murdered by prison guards on August 21, 1971. He was “a young man who died too soon,” says Shepp, “and who is important to us even today.” The musical theme has a disarming and unsettling character fitting the historical theme. It continues to remind us that the civil rights struggle is still literally a matter of life and death.

The Cry of my People further highlighted the enriching tension between the art song and spiritual sides of the concert. Olivier Miconi’s bold trumpet in itself was a powerful musical reminder of politically engaged liberational jazz such as that of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra. Shepp quoted the tune of Nina Simone’s Work Song. In the encore Do You Want To Be Saved, Shepp sang out in an impressively full voice with gusto and authority the music’s injunction to “Make a joyful noise.”

In a concert not lacking in emotional charge throughout, Archie Shepp said that he was 33 when his mother died at age fifty, and that “it was a great shock to all the family when she died.” Rest Enough was sung by Amina Claudine Myers with a compelling impassioned performance from the choir. Smiling, Shepp said “I’m certain that my mother appreciates that marvellous rendition.”

Ballad for a Child, from Attica Blues, was spine-tingling. The lyric “the whole world needs that smile” is as valuable as ever, even if only to save our sanity from our anger. The sentiment is not complacent, but a tonic. One of Shepp’s achievements is to combine gospel’s bright and beautiful overcoming appeal to the joy of living with an undiminished righteous anger. At the end, the hall rose to stand in a moving appreciation of Archie Shepp’s enduring importance.

Remembering Mexico 1968
iPhone snap by AJ Dehany
An audience member brought a final unforgettable moment to my experience of the concert. Last month we noted the anniversary of when, on October 16, 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist at the 1968 Mexico Olympics during the National Anthem. This act of incredible bravery made a strong statement that cost them dearly but enriched history. In front of me in the Barbican stalls, one gentleman raised the Black Power salute—and we’d like to offer our solidarity with everything that gesture represents.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

LINE-UP

Archie Shepp saxophones, vocals
Amina Claudine Myers organ, vocals
Pierre Francois Blanchard piano
Matyas Szandai double bass
Hamid Drake drums
Olivier Miconi trumpet
Virgile Lefebvre saxophone, vocals
Marion Rampal vocals

Choir

Cleveland Watkiss, Beverley Skeet, Gina Foster, Sylvia Mason,
Janet Ramus, Gail Evans, Daniel Bishop, Carleen Anderson

PROGRAMME

Art Songs

Wise One (Coltrane)
Isfahan (Strayhorn)

Spirituals

All God’s Children got a Home in the Universe (Archie Shepp)
A Prayer (Calvin Massey)
Call Him (Amina Claudine Myers)
God Bless The Child (Billie Holiday)
Blues for Brother George Jackson (Archie Shepp)
Come Sunday (Duke Ellington)
Rest Enough (Archie Shepp)
The Cry of My People (Archie Shepp)
Ballad for a Child (Calvin Massey)

ENCORE: Do You Want To Be Saved (Amina Claudine Myers)

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