The Jazzcat

Archie Shepp at Herbst Theater in San Francisco

by on Nov.02, 2008, under News

What! Archie Shepp! Man it is always an honor and certainly my duty to see and experience all of the live music from the legends that are still doin it! I am about fifteen years light of catching many of these cats when they were layin’ it on thick in the 60’s and I have been doing my best to catch up. When I heard Archie was coming to the West Coast I made my plans to have the live music be a part of my life too!

Like Ornette, Sonny, Prince, Yusef and the others who stretch the straight ahead musical boundaries, Archie is one to have been known for telling his stories through unique sound and delivering the message in a way that makes you listen, hear and contemplate. We are talking about the real true essence of the spirit of freedom outside the norm where you can experience the music and learn some things about yourself within the confines of it.

My relationship with many of the masters of universal bliss has come primarily from the liner notes and audible delights I experience through albums and CD’s. I don’t just wait for something to be presented to me I seek out and find those who express their individuality through their instrument. I know that as each year or even day passes, the opportunity to experience an individual’s live sound will not always be available. This is why you must wear the cloths of music at each and every opportunity in order to really know and have the feeling become a part of your life.

I know that in many cases as the time passes by, so does the vision, the passion, the gift, the intensity, the desire, the need, all of these things. Some musicians settle back and perform as mere shadows of their former selves while others are still on the prowl fueled by the same tenacity that brought them fame. It would be nice to say fame and fortune. However it seems as though those of us who create under the great auspices of “Jazz” continue to seek financial freedom and only have love as our reward for our dedication and creativity.

Archie approaches the stage in an attire of true 60’s couture; Edward Scissorhands sharp! He has a wonderful sense of humor as well and addresses the audience with great distinction. In a pre-concert talk, he speaks of John as a humble man that he refers to as Mr. Coltrane. He says that, “anytime spent with Coltrane left you feeling smarter than before. Without force, Mr. Coltrane was able to have you look deep inside yourself and be better”.

Shepp used to go and see Monk at the Five Spot when Trane and Charlie Rouse were in the band. Trane was a legend even back then to Shepp and he was so charismatic. Trane was able to expand the compass and return to modality and it was deeply the African American church that you could hear in his sound.

Archie prefers the term African American music to the word “jazz”. The black experience in music has evolved. Back in the day, blacks did not have access to Western American Instruments as they do today. They relied on the call and response mechanisms to communicate the sound. This innate African approach is natural which is why blues and improvisation in music, rhythms and pulse come the same way.

He speaks about “Attica Blues” and how the concept for such an album came about. He credits his drummer for the original idea to address the issue of those who lost their lives at Attica and through the music; they proceeded to express their opinions. The album remains to be a favorite of Archie’s to this day!

He has worked in duets with Horace Parlan, collaborated with the world renown rapper and Chuck D as well as taught for thirty one years at the University of Massachusetts; well rounded in the music indeed!

Shepp sports an elegance and a appealing classic demeanor that lets you know that respect is due for the man and his music. Tom McClung, Avery Sharp and Ronnie Burrage served as the section and Archie displayed not only his skills on saxophone but, broke out in song as well!

The first piece was a high-energy composition called “Hope 2”, written for a great pianist “ Elmo Hope”; a dear friend, and the mid tempo describes the personality of the man. Archie directs the audience with hand signals to give his musicians love in the form of applause for working so hard. Hard work comes easy when it comes to playing great music.

Archie is perched on a high bar stool out front and he is listening to the cats while signaling the engineer to get the sound right in the monitors. You can feel the presence of the 60’s in his compositions.  That is pretty special because it mentally takes you back to feel the heated emotions that were reflecting the times and communicating the sentiments of the people through a superior sound vehicle; all of the classic elements of form propelled by fascinating rhythms. He says that the band needs to taste what it sounds like on stage and in order to do that he asks the audience to give a little taste of applause, that’s all he needs.

Yes, the Blues is up in there and Archie and his quartet are swingin’ them things. Nothing to out of the box but, very distinguishable like duck pâté, light and elegant but full of flavor!  At this very moment, Archie has no horn in his hand. His tenor is lying down on a table and his soprano is in his case. I see Archie holding the microphone. Could he be about to recite some poetry? No, Archie breaks into his vocal bag with “I Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”

Shepp speaks of his grandmother who was born during slavery. There may not have been many instruments available back then but there was “Hambone”. He takes the mic and puts it to the thighs of Ronnie Burrage who proceeds to work the rhythm of the skins. If there is a passion for music, it will always come out regardless of instruments.

Suddenly, I hear the sound of “Footprints” but the lyrics are different and sung like a poetic clergyman with a touch of the Blues! Archie reaches for his case, assembles his soprano and in no time you feel the uncanny spirit of the almighty Coltrane. Archie shouts “Revolution” as he shouts to the heavens and narrates the story of the east, the west and the wetness that lies in between. V in this case does not stand for “Victory” and I’ll say no more (adjective for small furry cat)!

The Blues were a prominent source of inspiration in Archie’s playing. One, three, five and vocals were ever present while Archie turned the Herbst into the “House of Blues”. Tunes like “Steam”, “Ujamma”, “Trippin’”, “Hope No. 2” and many others were either written for people close to him or had some story to go with them. Shepp worked “Lush Life” like Trane and Hartman all rolled into one with a little Monk magic tossed in!

SF Jazz always pays homage to the best, the masters and the explorers of this music so when you are in San Francisco; make sure to go get your music on!

Next up Cecil Taylor…..

LeRoy Downs

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