on 31 July 2013
Archie Shepp became prominent in the mid and late sixties as an avant garde tenor player with strongly political Black Nationalist views. He was very conscious of the history of the music and of the great musicians who had gone before him. He mellowed a little as time passed but even at his most mellow he was never what you would call an easy listen. He is very far from mellow on this disc which, to simplify too much, is an angry tribute to his race and its music. It is difficult music and requires repeated and concentrated listening. Even after that I find it does not give up its musical message as easily as does 'Fire Music' an earlier and similar work.
The band here is an octet, consisting of Tommy Turrentine on trumpet, Grachan Moncur III and Roswell Rudd on trombones, Howard Johnson on tuba, Shepp, Perry Robinson on clarinet, and Charlie Haden and Beaver Harris on bass and drums respectively. Shepp solos quite extensively as do both trombones but in most cases musicians come to the fore to take a prominent part in the ensemble rather than as a solo feature.
Turrentine, a much neglected trumpeter and not somebody you would normally expect to find in a band like this, plays very well. He is used as a sound at the top of the orchestra, and his stark tone and occasional lyricism fit admirably. The two trombones and Johnson are all featured prominently and all play well. Their heavy sounds anchor the orchestra and also give it rhythmic impetus. Perry Robinson is barely audible. Shepp, his tone sounding like a combination of John Coltrane and an angry Ben Webster, erupts from the ensemble from time to time, and plays extremely well. Charlie Haden was, at this time, the ideal bassist for this sort of band, and the lesser known Harris provides some fairly ferocious drumming.
'A Portrait of Robert Thompson' lasts almost 19 minutes and includes both some fearsome collective improvisation that I find difficult to follow, and a langorous rendition of 'Prelude to a Kiss' featuring Shepp's ballad playing. 'Mama Too Tight' features funky back beat but also extensive fine trombone. 'Theme for Ernie' is a tribute to Ernie Henry, a fine alto player who worked with Dizzy's big band in the late forties and had a brief comeback in the mid fifties before he died very young. 'Basheer' again features fine trombone.
All the tunes are dedicated, either to 'a woman of paramount virtue' as Shepp describes it, or to black artists who died too young.