Review: Archie Shepp at LJF

Garry Booth found saxophonist and blues shouter Archie Shepp on fine form, closing the London Jazz Festival at the Barbican on Sunday

Before his Paris-based orchestra filed on to the stage, the lights went down and Archie Shepp’s gravelly voice came over the PA intoning the invocation from his 1972 classic Attica Blues. It had fallen to the 76-year-old saxophonist to bring the London Jazz Festival to its climax at the Barbican on Sunday - and he brought the house down.

With such a sombre intro, the stage could have been set for a night of earnest political declamation, but as with the album from which the big band takes its name, Shepp’s set was instead a brew of abrasive blues, Ellingtonian swing and raw funk.

The 16-piece orchestra, which included Americans Reggie Washington on bass, Famadou Don Moye on drums and pianist Tom McClung, featured a string quartet on the side for extra swish as well as singers (Simone-like) Claudine Myers, Marion Rampal, and Denise King.

This glorious outfit took a few circuits to find its formation with Quiet Dawn and Blues For Brother George Jackson, from Attica Blues. But once airborne, it found a collective grace and buoyed up a succession of thrilling soloists who had to elbow their way to the front of the stand.

Shepp followers, clearly out in force and in good voice, were treated to black and blue Attica staples such as Steam, a paean to his murdered nephew, Goodbye Sweet Pops, and the mournful tumult of Cry Of My People as well as Ellington’s Come Sunday.

Shepp, planted centre-stage (suited and booted), looked and sounded magnificent, the corrosive tone of his saxophone cutting through the arrangements, with blues shouting to match. He switched between tenor and soprano, contributing short, pungent lines that burned into the powerfully dramatic arrangements.

They broke the mould when they made Shepp: it is hard to imagine another artist who combines a reputation for fiery activism, theatre and the avant garde with the ability to party hard. The deliriously funky Mama Too Tight and a wildly jammed Attica Blues ended a two-hour set that needed no encore. Instead, the normally lugubrious Shepp simply lingered, cracking a broad smile as we stood to salute him and celebrate what he calls his music for the people.

Photography by John Watson

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