Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Archie Shepp & Horace Parlan in Denmark, 1977 & 1980

Archie Shepp
Known as a stalwart of the type of experimentation that led to free jazz in the 1960s, saxophonist Archie Shepp made a series of artistically successful albums such as Four for Trane, Fire Music, New Thing at Newport, and The Magic of Ju-Ju throughout that decade. In a tireless effort to break new ground, Shepp would sometimes include poetry declamations in his records and became increasingly interested in African rhythms. There was also a political side to his work, particularly in some of his LPs from the late '60s and early '70s (Poem for Malcolm, Attica Blues), which were often conceived as protests against social injustice and racial discrimination. Though Shepp's interest in African music never waned, his emphasis on political messages decreased as the '70s wore on. It was around this time that he started to appear and record frequently in Europe, including two collaborations with pianist Horace Parlan cut in Denmark for the SteepleChase label. The first one of these, 1977's Goin' Home, explores the relationship between jazz and gospel music, featuring deeply moving and respectful readings of spirituals such as "Amazing Grace," "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," and "Nobody Knows the Troubles I've Seen," all of them approached from the perspective of jazz.

Horace Parlan

Upon its release, the album garnered mixed reviews from critics, yet Shepp and Parlan were obviously satisfied with the results, because three years later, in 1980, they entered the studio again to record a sequel—Trouble in Mind, a similar project focusing this time on secular music. This new collaboration is a tribute to the classic blues tradition of the '20s and '30s, as performed by legendary artists of the genre such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.  From the opening track, Smith's "Backwater Blues," it seems evident that we're listening to a very special album by two jazzmen who have a thorough understanding of the roots of African American music, which they reinterpret in a uniquely personal way. Parlan supports Shepp's saxophone (he plays both tenor and soprano) very effectively and with elegance, and Shepp improvises on the melodies of these classic songs with delicacy and reverence. There are nods to W.C. Handy ("Careless Love"), Earl Hines ("Blues in Thirds"), and Leroy Carr ("How Long Blues"), as well as subtle interpretations of "See See Rider" and "Trouble in Mind." The melancholic, appropriately funereal reading of "St. James Infirmary" is one of the most memorable tracks of a fabulous album that finds Shepp and Parlan perfectly in tune with each other. Overall, this is a highly emotional collaboration, a joint exploration of the sounds that lie at the very core of the musical makeup of both participants. It's stripped-down music that catches the listener's attention for its sheer beauty, quiet intimacy, and heartfelt immediacy.

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