Preview: Archie Shepp at Ronnie Scott's

Archie Shepp, legendary saxophonist and free jazz pioneer, will be performing at Ronnie Scott's for one night only, playing two sets on Friday 31 July

Archie Shepp's single night at Ronnie Scott's this month is a welcome opportunity to hear this great musician. His quartet is to feature long-time partners Tom McClung (piano), Wayne Dockery (bass) and Steve McCraven (drums), and promises to be an excellent combination.

The tenor saxophonist (pictured right by Jan Kricke) was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1937 but brought up in Philadelphia and began his career as a member of the free-jazz avant-garde of the late 50s and 60s.

Also known then as “the New Thing,” or “the New Wave” – from the contemporary “nouvelle vague” in French cinema – Shepp was firmly identified with it. He was a member of Cecil Taylor's quartet (1960–62), appearing on the album The World of Cecil Taylor, and co-led a quartet with trumpeter Bill Dixon (1962–3), and was a member of the New York Contemporary Five, with Don Cherry and John Tchicai (1963–4). He also received the support of John Coltrane, recording with him on Ascension (1965). Thereafter he led his own groups.

Shepp followed the free-jazz paradigm, where melody is fragmented and instrumental tone highly vocalised and rapid flurries or timbral effects are employed. His groups emphasised collective improvisation, stressing African-American as opposed to European musical values.

Like writer Amiri Baraka, Shepp linked free jazz with the Black Power movement in the US. Free jazz wasn't commercially viable, and other forms always attracted much larger followings – Coltrane's Love Supreme, with its free jazz elements, was a rare and notable exception. Some critics perhaps felt that this was a factor in Shepp's subsequent move – hardly a return – to tradition, and his later career was one of consolidation. But Shepp himself declared that he had always been a "sentimentalist".

His tone became even fuller-bodied, featuring growls, bends and wide vibrato from earlier jazz – here following Albert Ayler – and he simplified his style further from the 1970s onwards. The very fine recorded results included Goin' Home (1977) and Trouble In Mind (1980), both duos with pianist Horace Parlan, featuring Shepp on soprano as well as tenor; they're among the most moving, sensitive recordings of spirituals and blues ever made. Shepp has recorded less in recent years.

Doors at Ronnie's open for set one at 6.00pm and for set two at 10.30pm. Tickets, priced from £30.00 to £52.50, can be obtained from the Ronnie Scott's website.

Andy Hamilton

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