Sunday, June 29, 2014

Archie Shepp: Four for Trane

Tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp's Fire Music was highlighted here before, as the first Shepp recording this blogger heard back in the early Nineties.  The predecessor and the leader's first recording for the Impulse label paid homage to John Coltrane, Shepp's supporter who lobbied hard to have the label sign the young firebrand.  To date, Shepp had played for a period with Cecil Taylor and recorded with Don Cherry, formerly with Ornette Coleman, and others in the New York Contemporary Five.

Four for Trane was not only a tribute to the jazz giant who got him signed to a major jazz label, but a way for Shepp to combine his deep blues feel with a very fine band and the arranging abilities of trombonist Roswell Rudd, who worked frequently with Shepp in the 60s.  The title directly refers to four of Coltrane's pieces covered by the band and this was a smart move by the leader, because it was said to producer Bob Thiele had to really be convinced by Trane to sign and work with Shepp.  This album rewarded Coltrane's persistence.

The opening track "Syeeda's Song Flute" is something else--Rudd's complex and rich arrangement shone through beautifully, as it does on the gorgeous "Naima," one of Trane's greatest compositions.  The way the various horns engage in interplay on both pieces, but especially on the intro to "Naima" is something to behold and it's a shame Rudd didn't get more credit for his arranging work.  Moreover, the other two tunes, "Mr. Syms" and "Cousin Mary" are also solid blues pieces and they provide apt forums for Shepp's earthy and raw playing to their best advantage.

Also a standout throughout this recording is the underappreciated altoist John Tchicai, a half-African, half-Danish player, who performed with Shepp in the New York Contemporary Five and went on to work on Coltrane's free ensemble album, Ascension.  Rudd also plays well and his instrument proved to be an interesting counterpoint to the saxes in the septet.  Trumpeter Alan Shorter, brother of the famed tenor player Wayne Shorter, then just getting his name recognition going with the Miles Davis Quintet, doesn't get that much opportunity to solo.

It's the rhythm section that also gets tremendous credit for holding down the bottom and keeping things truly swinging on this album.  Bassist Reggie Workman had played with Coltrane a number of times and was a very reliable, supple and flexible player behind the band.  Drummer Charles Moffett would go on to achieve his best-known work with Ornette Coleman with the great recordings in Copenhagen in 1966 in the two-disc Golden Circle albums already featured here and others.  His timekeeping is relentlessly sure and confident and he and Workman team up beautifully.

The one Shepp original is the provocatively-titled "Rufus (Swung, his face at last to the wind, then his neck snapped)," a tune that appeared later on a Coltrane/Shepp album recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965.  Tchicai plays fantastically on the opening solo and Shepp comes in with his distinctive earthiness for some excellent interplay and then his own solo, while Workman and Moffett keep things moving with great efficiency and verve.  In a way, "Rufus" was an announcement that, after the fine covers that started the album, Shepp was a fresh, new and exciting voice in the so-called "New Thing" or "Avant-Garde" that was sweeping through jazz in the Sixties.

Shepp followed this record with Fire Music and another excellent album, Mama Too Tight, which will also be featured here in the future.  He spent some time in France recording there at the end of the sixties before returning to America and more Impulse albums.  As jazz continued to decline in popularity, so Shepp's profile dimmed, but he has continued to make excellent music over the years, including a duet album with Dollar Brand that will make an appearance here someday.  He is still with us, as are Workman and Rudd, and Four For Trane is definitely a highlight of his long, interesting and under-recognized career.

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