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Celebrate Archie Shepp at 85, with a musical tour in Take Five

Archie Shepp
Dave Kaufman
used with permission
Archie Shepp at Roulette in Brooklyn, as part of the 2018 Vision Festival.

Archie Shepp — the fearless saxophonist, composer, playwright and poet, a 2016 NEA Jazz Master — was born on May 24, 1937. As he turns 85, we honor his recorded legacy with a far-from-comprehensive tour through his discography, spanning almost 60 years.

Archie Shepp, "Los Olvidados" (from Fire Music, 1965)

Archie Shepp made a series of knockout albums on Impulse! in the 1960s and '70s, and several of them — like Four For Trane and Attica Blues — are library essentials. To my ear, none looms larger than Fire Music, recorded and released in 1965 with an ensemble that includes Ted Curson on trumpet, Marion Brown on alto saxophone, Joseph Orange on trombone and Joe Chambers on drums. And for all of its fearsome reputation, the album warrants consideration as a teeming chamber work; listen to the way that Shepp orchestrates the first two minutes of his piece "Los Olvidados," a tip of the hat to Luis Buñuel. (And check out Curson's daring solo, in breakneck swing tempo.)

Archie Shepp, "Wherever June Bugs Go" (from Live in San Francisco, 1966)

No survey of Archie Shepp's music would be complete without an acknowledgment of his joyous, empathetic rapport with Roswell Rudd. A trombonist of honking ebullience and insatiable musical curiosity, Rudd died in 2017, at 82; as he told me on multiple occasions, he found in Shepp a deep musical companionship, and similar intellectual footing. You can hear this kinship clearly on Live in San Francisco, recorded at the Both/And in 1966; pay particular attention to the loping intricacies of the melodic line on "Wherever June Bugs Go," with a swinging underlay furnished by bassists Donald Garrett and Lewis Worrell and drummer Beaver Harris.

Max Roach and Archie Shepp, "The Long March" (from The Long March, 1979)

Among the many things Archie Shepp had in common with the incomparable drummer and composer Max Roach was an air of revolutionary purpose. "The Long March," which comes from a 1979 duo album of the same name, is a tribute to the epic military retreat that cemented the Communist rule of Mao Zedong, during the mid-'30s. (The album cover, depicting the Great Wall of China, makes the allusion clear.) Whatever your view on the politics, this is a performance of stunning power and presence, with Shepp caterwauling on tenor as Roach tends a percussive fire — ever-changing, always new.

Archie Shepp Quartet, "Georgia On My Mind (from Black Ballads, 1992)

Because of his reputation as an avant-garde firebrand, Shepp surprised some observers with his decisive turn toward the standard songbook in the late 1980s and early '90s. One album that signaled that turn was Black Ballads, featuring his longtime associate Horace Parlan on piano, Wayne Dockery on bass and Stephen McCraven (Makaya's father, misidentified in the credits as "Steve McRaven") on drums. Throughout the album, and certainly on "Georgia on My Mind," Shepp favors a burly yet distinguished style on tenor, calling back to forbears like Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins.

Archie Shepp and Jason Moran, "'Round Midnight" (from Let My People Go, 2021)

The aforementioned Horace Parlan, who died in 2017, was one of the handful of musicians who understood Shepp perfectly in a conversational format. Jason Moran, a pianist almost 40 years Shepp's junior, seems to be another one — judging on the merits of Let My People Go, the album they released last year. Pieced together from European festival concerts in 2017 and 2018, it captures the soul-baring, empathetic rapport that Shepp and Moran established in a relatively short period of time. On "'Round Midnight," a song that Moran has been turning over in his hands since his earliest exposure to jazz, their shared commitment to melody and mood is a low-key astonishment. (Bonus: don't miss the closing citation of Charlie Parker's famous intro to "Star Eyes," which Shepp introduces and Moran quickly picks up, as a spontaneous flicker of grace.)

Nate Chinen