Archie Shepp

Live at the Donaueschingen Music Festival
MPS EAN/UPC 4250644878640

While it may hardly sound credible in 2016, about 40 years ago it appeared as if Archie Shepp was going to enter the history books as the most accomplished tenor saxophonist following John Coltrane. In hindsight it’s became apparent that the aleatoric advances from Europeans like Evan Parker plus more direct Energy Music extenders like Charles Gayle or protean thinkers such as Roscoe Mitchell soon eclipsed Shepp. When he turned so-called traditional, even neo-mainstreamers like Joe Henderson’s playing revealed Shepp’s tonal inadequacies. Like an angry radical glorying in his establishment confrontations during the 1960s, Shepp has become a New Thing parody. Croaking the blues, recycling Swing ballads, struggling with intonation and raging vocally more than playing, the Shepp of four decades ago would have characterized today’s flashily dressed Shepp as one of those bourgeoisie entertainers he was struggling against.

That is why Live at the Donaueschingen Music Festival is such a crucial document. Recorded in 1967 in front of a large enthusiastic crowd, the set’s extended “One for the Trane” split in two parts for LP release was a summation of what Shepp could accomplish as a (Free) Jazz player. Not only does his nagging tone drill through the program like a laser on malleable material, but he’s able to inject quotes from R&B tunes and even “A Shadow of Your Smile” without pandering.

Shepp’s associates were also some of the best with whom he performed Trombonists Grachan Moncur III and Roswell Rudd singly and together had added the necessary power to memorable disc by the tenorist on Impulse and BYG. Drummer Beaver Harris would remain an associate for the next few years. Crucially as well, bassist Jimmy Garrison, only three months after the death of Coltrane, was able to add his positioned arco command and pizzicato thrust during lengthy solos here.

Like a free agent separated from a pennant winning team, the ardent torque Garrison brings to the tune’s unaccompanied introduction confirms that he functioned as well outside the classic Coltrane quartet as part of it. Harris’ cymbal crashes and percussion pulsations function like a cop moving a traffic jam into action, keeping a clear demarcation among the front-line improvisations. With the trombonists setting up a tapestry-like backdrop, Shepp’s pinched snarls move up and down as if following a game of snakes sand ladders, ending “Part 1”, with a bluesy tonal flow that owes more to Gene Ammons than Trane. A capella his nephritic outpourings reiterate the theme than slide into preacher and congregation-like responsive reading with the trombonists-as-audience’s plunger tones paramount. With Rudd and Moncur later playing the Pips to Shepp’s Gladys Knight, the group cycles through “The Shadow of Your Smile” and another R&B-like thematic variant before climaxing with “A Love Supreme” yoked to a foot-tapping beat. With reed tones constantly shifting from dispassionate to desperate and shoehorning quotes from other tunes into his cacophonous narrative, Shepp displays the conviction and skill that made his reputation and that would eventually desert him. Like a clothing designer who winds up creating garments that riff on his initial originality without attaining the same style, by this concert, Shepp had only a few notable recordings left in his future. That’s why Live at the Donaueschingen Music Festival continues to shine like a diamond among the musical zircons Shepp continues to peddle.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. One for the Trane, Pt. I (Live) 2. One for the Trane, Pt. II (Live)

Personnel: Grachan Moncur III and Roswell Rudd (trombone); Archie Shepp (tenor saxophone); Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Beaver Harris (drums)