Friday, April 6, 2012

Archie Shepp: Fire Music

Archie Shepp is a tenor sax player, a playwright, actor, poet, and a teacher.  His name first became known in the jazz world when he joined the band of trailblazing pianist Cecil Taylor (whose Conquistador! album has been covered here) at the beginning of the 1960s and participated in some of Taylor's recordings for Nat Hentoff's Candid label.

Shepp became a friend of John Coltrane (also to have a prominent place here) and, through Trane's influence, was signed to Impulse! Records.  His debut for the label, Four for Trane, will get a posting here some day, but it was Shepp's sophomore record, Fire Music, that gets first dibs.  For the album, as he did with the first, the leader assembled a sextet that provided a big band sounds because of the use of four brass instruments (Shepp's tenor, Ted Curson on trumpet, Joseph Orange on trombone, and Marion Brown on alto sax) and Reggie Johnson's bass and Joe Chambers on drums.

The dominant piece is the opening "Hambone," with a driving supporting riff by the other brass instruments behind Shepp's keening soloing.  Dramatic changes of pace come with covers of Duke Ellington's classic, "Prelude to a Kiss," which showcases Shepp's flair for the romantic ballad, and the smash bossa nova hit, "The Girl from Ipanema," which takes on a more experimental flavor with Shepp's arrangement.

More than perhaps any other "avant-garde" jazz artist of the 1960s, Shepp was intensely committed to African-American issues and was outspoken in his support of civil rights and other questions.  Most of the songs on the album were recorded in 16 February 1965, including "Los Olvidados," (The Forgotten), referring to a Luis Buñuel film but also coming from Shepp's experiences with youth mobilization in New York.

Five days later, though, Malcolm X, just entering into a new phase of his spiritual and political life, was assassinated and a shaken Shepp took drummer J. C. Moses and bassist David Izenzon into the studio to perform a piece written in response.  "Malcolm, Malcolm—Semper Malcolm" is a powerful combination of Shepp's anguished poetry and excellent support from the rhythm section, especially Izenzon's bowing, which lends a particular emotional component to the song.

A bonus track on the CD version is a live performance of "Hambone", with only Johnson and Brown remaining from the studio band, from the Village Gate club in New York in March 1965, from which engagement the live album, "On This Night" derived.  The studio version of the song is exciting and varied, but the live rendering is even better, which, in jazz, is almost to be expected.  In fact, Shepp's next release on Impulse! was a shared album with Coltrane at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival--which will also someday comprise a post here.

Shepp continued to fuse political activism with experimental jazz arrangements through the later Sixties and into the early Seventies.  Though his music became more accesible and less political later, he has continued to work and is now nearing 75 years old.  Fire Music is one of the best of his early works and is an essential document from the ferment of 1960s "avant-garde" jazz.

Archie Shepp:  Fire Music (Impulse! 1965)

1.  Hambone  12:28
2.  Los Olvidados  8:53
3.  Malcolm, Malcolm—Semper Malcom  4:48
4.  Prelude to a Kiss  4:49
5.  The Girl from Ipanema  8:33
6.  Hambone (Live bonus track)  11:50

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