St. Louis Blues
Jazz Magnet Records JAM-2006

In the almost 40 years since his first recording, tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp has gone from being perceived as a fire-breathing revolutionary to someone concerned with intensifying and codifying the tradition — and this CD is part of that new role.

Unlike most neo-cons who seemed to have discovered Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington around the time they filed their Earth, Wind & Fire albums in their parents' record collection, Shepp — born in 1937 — was exploring blues, gospel and Duke Ellington tunes as early as the late 1960s. However, the good media copy provided by his uncompromising Black Nationalistic rhetoric tended to obscure his other concerns.

Intonation and embouchure problems coupled with a teaching gig at the University of Massachusetts seemed to mark the saxophonist as someone who had lost his way; performances singing the blues as well as playing them didn't help matters either. True, over time, Shepp's instrumental prowess has been as inconsistent as the final years' vocalizing of Billie Holiday was in her final years. But unlike the tragically doomed Holiday — whose signature "God Bless the Child" is reprised here — or most Young Lions, who seem to stake out a style as rigid as the character on a situation comedy, Shepp tried to be a character actor. He's experimented with the equivalents of classic theatre as well recasting some of the more modern work he pioneered.

Unfortunately many of his more recent better albums — like this session recorded in Austria in 1998 — were only released in Europe, far away from the American media glare. Overall, this CD pinpoints the strengths and weaknesses of later day Shepp bands.

Tower of strength throughout is bassist Richard Davis, a frequent Shepp duo partner, who is so endlessly adaptable that his employers have included not only freeboper Eric Dolphy and the maintreamThad Jones-Mel Lewis band, but also Barbara Streisand and symphony orchestras conducted by Igor Stravinsky. Here his potent unvarying tone glues stray notes from the tenor man onto the melody on songs as different as the title tune, "Blue Bossa" and his own "Total Package". Although seven years older than the saxophonist, his rock-solid time and spectacular solos, both bowed and plucked, show that age has scarcely diminished his talents. Listen especially to how his overwhelming finger power cements the beat without having to play an electric model on the popular ballads and "Limbuke". Then note how he's able to modulate in and out of high string arco experimentations with the finesse of a full-time New musician on "Total Package".

Distressingly, drummer Sunny Murray — like Shepp, another first generation New Thinger — seems MIA most of the time. The majority of this set appears to have been done as a saxophone-bass duo, intentionally or not. While Murray does rouse himself for some muffled accents on the bassist's tune and his own "Et Moi", the listener could probably attribute most of the percussion color to "special guest" Leopoldo Fleming. Quiet background rumbling appears to be Murray's stock in trade here.

As for the saxophonist himself, to use a cliché, he literally blows hot and cold. There are times, as on "Blue Bossa" or his signature tune "Steam", where you literally wonder whether he's gone out of tune to make a point, or due to technical difficulties. Unsurprisingly lacking the strength of his world beating tone of the 1960s and 1970s, he still rises to the occasion when pushed as on "Limbuke" or on "Omega", even attempting modified multiphonics. Other times he's able to invest the originals with some world-weary tenor sadness that speaks to his maturity rather than the empty bravado of technique.

Even his two vocals — on the title tune and "God Bless The Child" — stand up, since his Billy Eckstine-influenced baritone is used sparingly. Plus, as a university drama major, Shepp has always been a master of theatrics.

In short, as a record of a survivor, ST. LOUIS BLUES deserves investigation, by those who knew Shepp in the 1960s ands those who have come to his art in later years. Just don't expect to hear 1968's Shepp in 1998.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. St. Louis Blues 2. Et Moi 3. Blue Bossa 4. God Bless the Child 5. Total Package 6. Steam 7. Limbuke 8. Omega

Personnel: Archie Shepp (tenor saxophone, vocals); Richard Davis (bass); Sunny Murray (drums); Leopoldo Fleming (percussion)