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Archie Shepp - I Know About the Life

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Artist: Archie Shepp

Album: I Know About the Life

Label: Hatology

Review date: Aug. 22, 2003

Book By Its Cover

As a means of artistic advancement, Radicalism offers finite prospects. An artist can only surf the breakers of the cutting edge for so long before his or her veracity is called into question. Saxophonist Archie Shepp knows this first hand.

One of the most overtly militant exponents during the rise of the New Thing, Shepp put the Malcolm X credo of “By Any Means Necessary” into resolute musical practice. Targeting hypocritical elements of the Establishment head-on, he confronted societal ills and inequities by co-opting and deconstructing existing jazz forms. Conservative critics called foul, but an appreciative audience was listening. A recording contract with the Impulse label, parlayed through his friendship with John Coltrane, and a string of creatively charged albums cemented his stature. But even back then, at his Afrocentric apogee, his music never sought to destroy the canonical traditions outright. Even so, many saw his turn in the '80s to standards and the Great American Songbook as a betrayal of his earlier role as one of the idiom’s most ardent and sharp-witted activists. Shepp was lumped with other ‘sell-out’ '60s radicals like former Black Panther Bobby Seale, who shelved his Black Power rhetoric and copped a capitalist day job peddling a barbecue cookbook.

Fact is, the folks doing the lumping just weren’t looking and listening hard enough. Granted, Shepp made some clunkers and sinkers in his attempts to plumb what was largely regarded as the moldy fig region of jazz. But he cleverly mixed his excavations of earlier songs with potent investigations of newer fare by his peers. Standards allowed Shepp the freedom to focus intently on the dynamics of his horn without having his attention diverted by the rigors of composing, though fresh tunes continued to flow from his pen.

I Know About the Life originates from this period and sits as a substantial entry in Shepp’s fat portfolio of works. First issued on the Canadian Sackville label, Hatology has wisely earmarked it for reissue. Like Coltrane’s Giant Steps in the '60s and Joe Henderson’s Live in Japan in the '70s (albeit not on par with these ageless monuments), it’s the kind of record that students study seriously. Shepp selects two Monk tunes and the aforementioned Coltrane classic to compliment his own balladic title track and enlists the aid of a rhythm section incisively in tune with his aspirations. Solos and ensemble passages spool out in superlative succession as the band shapes each of the tunes into sagaciously stylized personal statements.

Any allegations of Ben Webster emulation, a slight often levied at Shepp’s sound, once again dissipate under scrutiny as his coarse-grained tenor threads through the angular intervals of “Well You Needn’t” like a gnarled tuber snaking through moist soil. Pianist Ken Werner comps sedately beside him, but drummer John Betsch, long in the Steve Lacy-orbit, drops propulsive bombs to keep the tempo limber. Bassist Santie Debriano’s plump walking line completes the portrait and Werner wakes up for a shrewd solo before a string of ornery breaks by Betsch. The stark romance of the title piece and a piquant reading of “Round Midnight,” with a closing Latin twist, offer up pliable and tranquil melodic surfaces that belie beguiling undercurrents of tension. But it’s the blazing improvisatory brushfire of Trane’s “Giant Steps” that supplies the most jaw-gaping surprises, including a strenuous sparring exchange between Sheep and Betsch in the final minutes. With this album the saxophonist transcends his earlier personas of free jazz firebrand and fogeyish standard-bearer for a far more accurate alchemy of the two.

By Derek Taylor

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