Thursday, July 12, 2007

Excavation/Two by Shepp

Going through vinyl in preparation for the move to Tempe, I found a couple of Archie Shepp albums I haven't heard in a long time. One, Pitchin' Can, on America records, contains an extended blowing piece called Uhuru (Dawn of Freedom) with Shepp, Bobby Few, Bob Reid, Clifford Thornton, Mohamed Ali, Al Shorter, Djibrill, Ostaine Blue Warner and Lester Bowie. The other piece on the record is the title track, with Shepp, Sunny Murray, Clifford Thornton, Julio Finn, Noah Howard, Leroy Jenkins, Dave Burrell, Earl Freeman and Chicago Beau. Apparently recorded in Paris in 1969 and 1970, the album is yet another outgrowth of the exodus (whether temporary or more long term) of creative musicians to France near the end of the '60s.

The other record unearthed is simply titled Archie Shepp/Philly Joe Jones, and has Anthony Braxton, Chicago Beau, Shepp, Julio Finn, Leroy Jenkins, Earl Freeman and Philly Joe Jones. This one is from the same brief period; Paris 1970. (I notice some of the other vital extended sessions Shepp participated in from this time, including Alan Silva's Luna Surface and Sunny Murray's BYG sessions and work with Grachan Moncur III). The two performances recorded here: Lowlands and Howling in the Silence. Apparently, Philly Joe Jones was teaching at a school in London from 1967-1969, although he was prevented from working there because of the British musician union rules.

I can't hear much Braxton on this recording, with Shepp very hot in the mix and Chicago Beau's vocals an urgent and also overly hot scream. There's a lot of Leroy Jenkins though, which is a pleasure. Philly Joe Jones brings some serious muscle to the loose 6/8 of much of Lowlands. His approach is completely different from Max Roach's ferocious fluidity on the duets with Cecil Taylor from 1979; much more metrical and articulated. The overall effect is free jazz blues tinged with hard bop and not particularly integrated. It's a mad swirl of chaos, especially when Julio Finn's (or Chicago Beau's?) harmonica comes through. Braxton's soprano sax sounds more like a Middle Eastern reed instrument than a sax.

Howlin' in the Silence starts with some piano from Shepp (sounding very influenced by another of his collaborators of the time, Dave Burrell). Leroy Jenkins states a sweet, minor theme and Braxton finally gets some angular, sere time on alto that quickly morphs into screams and guttural shards, with Philly Joe dancing on the brushes. The spoken word seems to work better here. (The consensus among Vision Festival attendees this year seems to be that free players should dispense with spoken word, but I usually find it an affecting mix. There's something about language brought to the swirl that has always seemed a fitting contrast to me). Leroy Jenkins gets some stretching time on this piece, and this may be why I had avoided spinning the disc much when I was younger. It took me a long while to get next to free jazz strings in general; I guess I was assisted mostly by Ramsey Ameen's work with Cecil Taylor's late '70s Unit. Now Philly Joe Jones has launched into a melodic excursion in 6, brushes mixing snare and toms in his trademark way. Now we're back in the blues, well a sort of cubist blues. Shepp is also back on tenor; Braxton in flights on alto as well. It's great to hear Braxton with Philly Joe Jones behind him. Surreal, but lovely.

Pitchin' Can bears some resemblance to the above recording, except that the approach of Uhuru is nonmetrical, roiling and shimmering in the archetypal "energy music" style. Shepp gets more of his signature full-toned blowing time, and Clifford Thornton is particularly effective on valve trombone , coming in and out. Some of Shepp's phrases here are reminiscent of one of my favorite recordings of all time, The Magic of Ju-Ju. Thornton gets some butt-kicking solo time. He's one of the players from this time by whom I am always surprised, and when I hear some of what he did, I always want to hear more. Alan Shorter takes an all-too-short solo on flugelhorn. Sadly, stepped on by the ululation of the word "Uhuru" by Shepp. Burrell's playing is full and dramatic, awash with chords and sparkling lines. Oddly, yet again, as I'm just getting next to what Burrell is doing, it's overpowered by more shouting.

The title track comes as a surprise after the ferocity of Uhuru. It's a sort of uptempo All Blues riff, that stays in the tonic. Sunny Murray keeps impeccable time. I would have liked to hear more Noah Howard . In general, on both recordings, I want to hear more from the remarkable personnel. Not that I am not always inspired to hear Shepp.


Brent said...

those are two records i would love to hear. (the music blog *magic of juju* posted a track from lowlands a while back:

i did just manage to track down a copy of black gipsy (on america) from the same era, w/ similar personnel. (i should say that for entirely extra-musical purposes i am limited to digital formats.) black gipsy has turned out thus far to be a disappointment. i'm not opposed to spoken word at all (on the contrary working on a phd in english), but chicago beau's stuff here never stops sounding extraneous. it doesn't help that i'm going mad listening to sunny murray work a 4/4 swing beat for 15 minutes at a time. and then shepp is on soprano the whole time, wch is also way over the rest of the mix most of the time.

so that's my feeling on *bg*. i'm wondering if others had a different rxn.

peter breslin said...

Hi Brent, thanks for stopping by. I haven't heard Black Gipsy. Or Yasmina. I do know that it took me roughly 20 years to get next to Pitchin' Can and the Philly Joe album...for reasons not entirely clear. And that certain recordings in the Shepp discography seem willfully antagonistic, and not in a good way.

I guess mostly what made both Pitchin' Can and AS/PJJ a challenge for me was the lack of pure instrumental presence. Taking them with all the blues inflections, harmonica, poems, repitition, bad recording quality, etc. just wasn't in my range for a long time. I wanted more of the ripping Magic of Ju-Ju madness and wasn't willing to be open to the ways in which these recordings are different.


cbeau said...

Hello. I thought I would offer up a few comments on Black Gipsy and other sessions recorded by me and others during the last Paris Jazz period.

You should have been there: in the studios, on the streets of Paris, in he flats and caves with people of various leftist movements, down in Algeria with the Black Panthers, or trampled by riot police in Boston, or Selma; and then again in Paris. Maybe you could, in some small way, appreciate the vibe of the time, and the impedus for free Jazz, Screams, Howls, and physical movements (thankfully unseen on vinyl) which also took place in the recording studios.

In those days there was a lot anger, and a lot of madness. There were happy musicians, and many, who I will not name, that were suffering from Viet-Nam era Blues/Stress and a lot of other serious issues.

It was an exiciting time, and I think it's important for lovers or critics of this music to look beyond the vinyl, and cetainly stop straining themselves searching for comparisons, and a status quo; which is at the heart of the Eurocentric Jazz critic.

Be well...cbeau

Chris Rich said...

Hi Peter,

I owned that Howlin thing as an LP years ago when I was a bum at U Mass sitting in on Archie Classes. His son Pavel is a dear friend and lives in Seattle.

Archie has some amazing new work out in France that Pavel can probably get to you as the French are terrible at figuring out US distribution. Tauregs are involved.

MY poor blog has degenerated into a local listing pit boring the snot out of everyone.

I am actually back to booking music here so if you end up in the east for some reason, you will get instantly booked and there is a good piano.

peter breslin said...

Hi Chicago Beau, thanks so much for stopping by. I appreciate your perspective, having been there. If I had been there, I would have been 8 years old. I think when I was 8, I was listening to Tommy James and Classical Gas.

Although I've been blessed by going to many Cecil Taylor, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra, John Carter, Ornette Coleman and other live performances of this music, by the time I was able to do so, from 1980 on, the fierce early explosion of raw expression had in many ways subsided. I have always been in the position of relying on vinyl for much of what I know and love, ironic in that I am an American and in fact many of my favorite musical experiences were recorded in Europe. Without the past and Europe (and Japan) what would I listen to? What would really move me right now? Not sure.

Anyway, like I said, thanks for your crucial perspective.

Chris Rich- Thanks for the booking offer, and I've been enjoying reading the local listings there (including the one about Jack Wright a while back; Ben and I were on a gig last spring, great bassist). If I get east, seriously, you'll be the first to know.