Archie Shepp

True Ballads

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This 1996 set features tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp with pianist John Hicks, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Idris Muhammad playing an inspired set of ballads. And while it's true that this is what Shepp seems to have done since 1990, giving plenty of credence to the critical notion that the fire has gone out of his playing, it's more a question of perspective than lack. As evidenced here on the opening number alone, a smoky, steamy rendition of "The Thrill Is Gone" that could have ended up in anybody's film noir, Shepp's fire may not burn angrily, but it burns low, deep, and hot just the same. The tenor player once said that you could hear every minute of every hour a musician put into practice when he played a ballad. That's certainly true here, and the answer is more than you could ever imagine. The inflection of Shepp's horn that moves somewhere between the deep, robust speech of John Coltrane and the shimmering soulful whisper of Ben Webster. If you check he and Hick's wandering around each other in the middle of "Nature Boy," or on Johnny Mandel's "The Shadow of Your Smile," you get a picture of a pair so intent on listening to the nuances in a change or harmonic syllable, that they know exactly how to aurally illustrate the bigger picture to a listener. With Muhammad on drums there is a certain laid-back groove that's organic in every number, and in Mraz, without his slim tone but silvery fingers, there's a polished elegance that makes the entire package Shepp's finest ballad date ever.

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