Rediscoveries #1: Archie Shepp's Ballads

A review of the Archie Shepp/Jason Moran duet album Let My People Go, in the April issue, may have startled some readers. Shepp is a tenor saxophonist known for tearing across the fiercest climes of the avant-garde (his seminal album is called Fire Music); yet at 83, he's playing standards, spirituals, and slow blues. In fact, Shepp has been exploring such traditional terrain for several decades. So—for the debut of an occasional column on underappreciated albums, artists, genres, and labels—let's shine some light on Archie Shepp's ballads.

The shift began in 1970, when, after his mother's funeral, a friend of hers asked, "When are you going to record something that I can understand?" It occurred to him that few Black people were coming to his concerts. So, he started playing the standards and blues that he'd heard and played while growing up in Philadelphia. And he found himself tapping deep wells of emotion.

In all his shifts, Shepp's sound is distinctive. His adventurism is rooted in Coltrane, whom he has likened to Einstein for synthesizing all prior jazz into a new concept. His heart beats to the brawny soul of Ben Webster. His driving force is the vast range of the African-American experience: field hollers, gospel call-and-response, prison riots, street protests. The modulations of his music are determined by which lenses of this prism he lets the light and colors shine through.

His shift to standards made its debut at the 1975 Montreux Jazz Festival (released as Montreux One on Arista Freedom), where he started his set with Strayhorn's "Lush Life," to loud cheers from the crowd. In 1977, he and pianist Horace Parlan recorded a duet album of African-American spirituals, Goin' Home (SteepleChase), approaching this music in a reverential tone as if they were davening on holy ground.

In 1978, Shepp recorded Duet (Denon) with South African pianist Dollar Brand (now known as Abdullah Ibrahim), delving into a gentler side of African rhythms and, on one track, into the Mal Waldron/Billie Holiday heartbreaker "Left Alone." It's a gorgeous album in superb sound.

Two years later, Shepp and Parlan reconnected with Trouble in Mind (SteepleChase), more limber and less tentative than their first meeting, tumbling in playful blues. It's a fine album.

In the 1980s, Shepp canvassed the modern jazz repertoire with various ensembles, recording tributes to Parker, Monk, Ellington, Sidney Bechet, and others. They're of uneven quality but always inventive.


Then, in the '90s, he shifted again to ballads and turned out some of his loveliest albums, most of them with first-rate, straight-ahead quartets. Twenty years earlier, just before first going this way, Shepp split his lip, requiring plastic surgery. It changed his embouchure from classical to double-lipped, which, as he later put it, "gives you a bigger sound, but it's more difficult to control." But, he went on, "everything came together with time." That time began in 1992, with Black Ballads (Timeless), a quartet album that starts off with a slow, heart-stopping cover of "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans," which is followed by "Georgia on My Mind." Shepp's tone and cadences are mesmerizing—rumbly, reflective, romantically raw.

It's here that he starts to sing on some of these tracks ("Lush Life" is a frequent favorite), and you realize that all along he's been singing through his horn; the two voices are one—a thick preacher's tenor, not hitting all the notes perfectly but stretching them in a way that's just right. On the horn, too, he's figured out how to maneuver that hard-to-control embouchure into a sinuous blue note. The quartet, including Parlan on piano, supplies tasty backup; the contrasts are tingling. The sound is very good.

Black Ballads was followed by Blue Ballads, True Ballads, and True Blue (all Venus Jazz), with John Hicks on piano, George Mraz on bass, and either Billy Drummond or Idris Muhammad on drums—all staples of the era who could imbue anything thrown at them with swing and beauty. True Blue is the highlight: two Coltrane tunes—a swooning cover of "Lonnie's Lament" and a slow take on "Blue Train"—book-ending a handful of lush standards. Sonics are excellent.


Shepp's peak in balladry came in 2002, with Left Alone Revisited (Enja), a duet session with pianist Mal Waldron. It's a Billie Holiday tribute, and few of the many covers of her work capture her sorrows and glories with such passion or depth. Waldron, who played with Holiday in her final years, was an ideal partner for Shepp: a pianist of rapt authority who laid down structures but laced them with such colorful threads—he could coax an orchestra's harmonies from a handful of notes—and left open just enough space for Shepp to embellish his rhythms without wandering too far. The air is haunting, the interplay intense; every song is a gem. The sound is superb.

In 2005, at age 68, Shepp founded his own label, Archieball, and revisited the entire range of his life's music: ballads, blues, free jazz, bebop, even R&B, with duets, trios, quartets, a reprise of his Attica Blues Orchestra, and a rap assemblage including Chuck D. His latest, the duet with Moran, marks a return to his spiritual quests with Parlan and Waldron, but it doesn't mark the endpoint of some continuum from those earlier duets; it's unlikely to mark the end of anything. Archie Shepp keeps moving on.

Allen Fant's picture

Excellent review! FK
Keep writing.

TNtransplant's picture

FK's reviews are always insightful reads. Hopefully we'll be getting more look backs at some wonderful albums that seem to have slipped through the cracks or unacknowledged periods of greatness in musician's careers.

Yeah, nice to have what might be the ultimate Kind of Blue vinyl release but it is getting ridiculous that the same titles are getting reissued over and over.