Archie Shepp

Live at the Totem, Vol. 2: 'Round About Midnight

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Archie Shepp's 1979 quartet of American and European musicians (Clifford Jarvis, drums; Seifried Kessler, piano; Bob Cunningham, bass) put more fire under him as an improviser than anybody since Coltrane. These cats came to play, and they were playing for keeps. It's all Shepp can do to lead the band. Opening with a furiously paced "Donna Lee," with Shepp's solo winding all around the intervals and changing them in mid-phrase, Jarvis double times even his legato. For 16 minutes the band changes through the tune changes, and Shepp can't decide which key to play in; he goes through all 12 eventually and solos both in and out of the tradition -- off-mic occasionally, too. Things slow down a bit when the band shimmies into "'Round About Midnight," with Kessler taking a firm grasp of the harmony; Shepp shifted around so much on the last cut he couldn't afford to be left in the lurch on such a harmonically complex tune. As Shepp slips out the first couple of notes, Kessler is already tinkering with Monk's line, giving Shepp just a small pause before easing into a deep, Ben Webster-ish solo as Kessler moves through the minor mode into some diminished ninths, inverts the entire harmony, and begins rebuilding. Shepp is in full ballad mode while the rhythm section is waiting for the sign to kick it into groove, which they do about three minutes in. The real kicker on the set is "Blues for George Jackson" from Attica Blues, which lasts nearly half an hour. Shepp takes the sum total of everything he learned from cats like Dollar Brand, Pharaoh Sanders, and Coltrane and slips it all into a Pan-African groove. He states his theme in the lower register in ostinato until Kessler grabs hold of it and moves the harmony through a diatonic shift. When Cunningham begins to accent that bassline and Jarvis slides along the backbeat, Shepp gets funky, blues-out, and wailing. But it's only the beginning of a tune that goes through modes, scales, intervals, and rhythmic changes to find the heart of that same groove across musical -- especially jazz -- history that quotes everything from Miles Davis, to Coltrane's "India," to Horace Silver, to Coleman Hawkins, Machito, and Sun Ra. By the time it's over you don't even need to hear the rip, rig, and panic version of Bird's "Confirmation," which takes it out -- you're exhausted. This set, the second of the night, was great. Period.

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