Archie Shepp - Summerhall, Edinburgh, 1 Aug 2012
Avant-garde fire may be toned down, but 75-year-old Shepp still honks a mighty blues
This article is from 2012.
'I continue to listen gamely to Archie Shepp (who is wearing a beard now) in the hope that one day it will all cease to sound like 'Flight of the Bumble Bee' scored for bagpipes and concrete-mixer' wrote Philip Larkin in 1966. One can relish the poet and jazz critic's waspish prose while bemoaning his conservatism, particularly when he makes the objects of his derision sound so exciting. To these noise-damaged ears, all that skirl and drone sounds like a blast. In the end, Larkin got his wish; the Shepp of today is unlikely to send mouldy figs running for the cover of their Bix Beiderbecke 78s (not that there's anything wrong with Bix). That isn't to suggest he has regressed to fustian traditionalism. The raging overtones and angry screams of his avant-garde fire music may have been toned down, but as his Summerhall gig proves, the 75-year-old Shepp still honks a mighty blues, while his tenor tone remains as rich as ever.
He sings too, romping through Duke Ellington's 'Don't Get Around Much Anymore' over Tom McClung's sprightly stride piano. It's when he delivers his own songs and poems, however, that his vocals really come into their own. 'Steam', from his 1971 classic Attica Blues, mourns the death in a street-fight of his teenage cousin. Shepp's throaty blues voice conveys his anger at the way poverty and racism destroys so many young black lives.
The recitation of 'Mama Rose' which follows a stunning soprano saxophone-led 'Revolution' shows him to be as powerful a reader as his contemporary in the 1960s Black Arts movement, Amiri Baraka. It's the soprano playing that sees Shepp the sax-man at his best, recalling the Coltrane of 'India' and 'My Favourite Things' as he careens through Eastern-tinged scalar runs and sheets of modal harmony with a pinched, reedy tone; the kind of 'cobra-coaxing cacophonies of Calcutta' that had Larkin in an alliterative panic.
Back on the tenor, Shepp performs a tender version of the late Hugh Hopper's ballad 'Memories', a song popularised by Robert Wyatt, who is in the audience tonight. Shepp recorded a version of the song with Whitney Houston for Bill Laswell's early '80s project Material, making this evening's rendition all the more touching.