Archie Shepp & Joachim Kühn Wo!Man Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

A pronounced swing emerges as this fine collaborative set unfolds.

Kevin Le Gendre 2011

Separated by continents, American saxophonist Archie Shepp and German pianist Joachim Kühn are bound by other things. They both knelt at the altar of John Coltrane in the early 60s, a time when Kühn was one of the few Europeans to venture to New York and feed off the energy of the ‘New Thing’ or avant-garde, the strain of jazz that brought, in the best cases, a focused turbulence to both composition and improvisation.

The other common denominator is the prevalence of duets in each man’s discography. Kühn counts Ornette Coleman, Michel Portal and Heinz Sauer as previous partners; for Shepp, it’s Mal Waldron, Horace Parlan and Siegfried Kessler. So if this sax-piano session has a conspicuous sense of self-possession, the feeling that both men are at ease with the exposed and demanding setting, one where there is no drummer to cover a multitude of sins, then that is because they are well-schooled in the subject.

The measure, the proportion, the careful emphasis, is boldly announced in the opener Transmitting, a majestic Kühn original built on a sensually rippling minor theme played by both men with vigour but not excessive force, the final two notes of the statement delivered with a dry, discreet intonation. There’s no melodrama. However, Kühn’s left hand bassline, its pattern vaguely drone-like in character, creates a crystal clear momentum to ensure that the element of dance is undeniable. 

As the set unfolds that becomes a more pronounced swing, which both players invest with absolute authority, particularly on the old-school rhythm & blues of Earle Hagen and Dick Rogers’ Harlem Nocturne where they pull the beat to a strolling rather than walking line. All this subtle but nonetheless sensual rhythmic activity underlines the romanticism of the performance, which is given a sun-lit and celebratory edge on pieces such as Nina, a skipping, joyful tribute to Ms Simone, and a darker hue on the more agitated flux of Sketch. Occasionally, Shepp’s notes liquefy a la Ben Webster and Kühn’s solidify into sterner classically-inflected cadenzas. Both are intensely moving. Both are relaxed, not lazy.

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