Kwanza is a curious Archie Shepp recording. Released in 1969 on Impulse, it features cuts recorded between September 1968 and August 1969 with an assortment of lineups. Four of the album's five cuts were produced by Bob Thiele, and one, "Slow Drag," by Ed Michel. Shepp composed three tunes here, and he is in the company of musicians such as Grachan Moncur III (who composed "New Africa"), Jimmy Owens, Dave Burrell, Wally Richardson, Bob Bushnell, Bernard Purdie and Beaver Harris, Leon Thomas, Charles Davis, Woody Shaw, Cedar Walton, Wilbur Ware, Joe Chambers, Cecil Payne, and others. As the title might suggest, Kwanza is a joyful record, full of celebration in blues and jazz. "Back Back" opens the set with a colossal funky blues that feels like an out version of the JB's with Burrell kicking it on B-3. The all-too-brief "Spoo Dee Doo," showcases Thomas' unique, and truly awesome vocal stylings along with Tasha Thomas and Doris Troy providing a swinging backing R&B chorus. "New Africa" is the most vanguard track here, with a different rhythm section than on "Back Back," and no guitar, Burrell returns to his piano. It begins in a manner that suggests anger, but not rage. It becomes an edgeless, rounded meditation on joy and gratitude, a statement of purpose at realization and transcendence with Shepp, Owens. and Davis playing alongside Moncur as a monumental choral line in timbres; textures, big harmonic reaches and ultimately resolution. "Slow Drag," is a funky blues tune, it struts a minor key line that feels like a mutated "Wade in the Water," but its Latin rhythms and the killer bass work of Wilbur Ware make the cut a standout. The set closes with Cal Massey's "Bakai," a tune that walks a fringed line on the inside and swings like mad. Kwanza may not be one of Shepp's better known recordings, but it is certainly one of his fine ones.
by Thom Jurek