This 1998 studio recording by tenor sax legend Archie Shepp is a study in blues and ballads as the title might suggest, but it also marks the return of Shepp as a true bandleader. With pianist John Hicks, drummer Billy Drummond, and bassist George Mraz, Shepp sounds more inspired here than he has in literally decades. There is no crutch-like reliance on hard bop and blues stylings, nor is there any over-the-shoulder tosses at being the king of the avant-garde. Instead Shepp focuses on what he does best: being a fine stylist and one of the great blues phraseologists in the business. Opening with Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament," Shepp goes one better than just saluting his old boss -- he reharmonizes the tune and slows it down, making it a true elegy. On Cole Porter's tunes, Shepp looks to the deep lyricism in Hicks' playing to bring out his best ballad style. The two of them interact so warmly and intimately here, it could have easily been a duet. On Jimmy van Heusen's "But Beautiful," it's Hicks who leads off the tune, but it's Shepp who gives it its body and soul. Beginning to play the melody from deep in the lower register, Shepp traces the harmony out to the edges and coaxes Hicks to follow him; he simultaneously scales back just enough to open him up to fill that space with wonderful flowering chords against his warmer-than-July tone. Shepp offers one original to the mix, "A Little Surprise for the Lady," which is refreshing among all these covers for its shimmering, funky groove and slithering solo; he offers a stunning rendition of "Blue Train" and ends the program with another of the Coltrane book standards, Billy Eckstine's "I Want to Talk About You." But instead of going for Coltrane's leaping and loping harmony in the bridge, Shepp creates a new one based on the bassline instead of the lyric phrase, which adds a certain depth and dimension not heard before, no matter how many times this tune has been interpreted. The only weak spot on the whole date comes from Mraz. His lack of wood in his tone makes all of his fluidity for naught because, as with most of the sessions he plays on, he becomes too limpid to hear. But it's a small complaint for a gorgeous session.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek