Archie Shepp @ Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2/5/2015

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The last-minute cancellation of the Sun Ra Arkestra due to ‘unseen circumstances’ would have proved profoundly disappointing for many jazz fans hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary ensemble in action but thankfully Cheltenham’s jazz festival organisers came up with an inspired and fortuitous substitute in the shape of a true American jazz giant, Archie Shepp, who, quite conveniently, lives across the English Channel in Paris.

 A protégé of Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane, in the 1960s, Shepp – now approaching his 78th birthday – was in the vanguard of the US avant-garde scene but as he’s grown older, his music has perceptibly mellowed (though it’s still incredibly passionate) with the tenor saxophonist embracing the blues idiom that is one of the key DNA strands in jazz.

At Cheltenham, a dapper-looking Shepp – sporting a trilby and wearing a sharp suit complete with waistcoat – fronted an excellent quartet comprising American pianist Tom McClung, Hungarian bassist Matyas Szandai and drummer Steve McCraven. The group kicked off in fine style with the pulsating hard bop number, ‘Hope 2,’ a tribute to jazz pianist, Elmo Hope. The seated Shepp fired off impressive salvos of tenor sax outpourings while the rhythm section swung with fierce precision.

Indeed, Shepp’s cohorts were impressive, with Tom McClung catching the ear with his deliciously dexterous piano playing. The band changed down a gear for a terrific take on Duke Ellington’s immortal ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,’ on which Shepp sang as well as played. His voice is a rich, soulful, expressive baritone (with a vibrato reminiscent of Leon Thomas) and he displayed it again on the more edgy ‘Revolution,’ which he said was dedicated to his grandmother, who was born in the time of slavery. That particular track also found Shepp playing soprano saxophone as well as intoning a spoken, quasi-poetical narrative, which included the memorable line that might have raised some of the festival goers’ eyebrows: “your vagina split asymmetrically before the east and west.” By contrast, Shepp’s lyrical take on ‘The Stars Are In Your Eyes’ – a tribute to Sarah Vaughan – was more subdued while the infectious bluesy shuffle, ‘Funky Mama,’ was imbued with an earthier, good time blues vibe which had the audience’s feet tapping. This, then, was a memorable concert from one of the last remaining greats from jazz’s golden era and a real coup for the Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

Charles Waring

Read SJF’s 2013 interview with ARCHIE SHEPP here: