Shepp's still going strong at 70, but this double helping birthday treat is a curate's...
Nick Reynolds 2007
Archie Shepp is a jazz legend. His links to Coltrane and his highly charged mix of out-there sax playing and political comment in the sixties and seventies assure him of a proud place in jazz history. Still going strong, for his 70th birthday he’s released this beautifully packaged, deluxe double CD. The first “The Reverse” is a new studio recording while the second is a live set from five years ago.
“The Reverse” contains material in many different styles; blues, gospel, latin and bop. Public Enemy’s Chuck D raps on the title track. But like many birthday parties, while everybody’s having fun, there’s a sloppy atmosphere and some mess.
Shepp’s energy is amazing. His playing pushes at the boundaries of tonality (which is a fancy jazz way of saying he occasionally sounds out of tune), with a breathy, raw, wobbly tone, lots of notes, over-blowing and shrieks. Sometimes this works, but occasionally his playing seems at odds with the material, for example on Thelonious Monk’s “Pannonica”. The mix is unbalanced, with Shepp pushed forwards at the expense of the other players; guest guitarist Stephane Guery sounds like he’s playing behind a wall.
Shepp’s singing is an acquired taste. You’ll either love the political, sexually explicit, talking jazz of “Revolution” or you’ll find it curiously old fashioned and tasteless, although Shepp’s soprano sax is on fine, keening form.
I prefer the second CD, 'Live in Souillac'. This is a simply recorded live concert from 2002. The driving post-bop of “Hope Two” and “Ujaama” suits Shepp’s intense, over-the-top lines better than some of “The Reverse”, and to be frank, in my humble opinion his playing is better. Amina Claudine Myers contributes two entertaining, warm gospel songs and it all adds up to a very pleasant listen.
It seems rude to be lukewarm about a birthday celebration. Hard-core Shepp fans will love this. But if you’re unsure how much you like Shepp, try before you buy.